A successful legal department is like a hockey team

In-house counsel can take a lesson from the teamwork-heavy sport

Earlier this summer, the senior leadership team at my company engaged in a series of team-building sessions. The results were phenomenal, in large part because each of the participating leaders was open to the exercises and committed to the ultimate goal of becoming a high-performing team. 

As we worked on deconstructing and improving our collaboration and communication strategies, we found the sports analogies starting to flow, and we debated which was the most analogous to our corporate goals. Were we a track team, made up of individual pole-vaulters, distance runners and sprinters whose scores would aggregate for our overall team placement? Were we a baseball team, with players in the dugout, awaiting our turn to contribute to the team cause? Were we a football team, with separate offensive and defensive units, taking their turns for the common good?

As the spouse of a lifelong hockey player, it was clear to me that our values were best embodied by the continuity, fluidity and teamwork of an ice hockey team. In fact, whenever I talk about the five core values of my legal team—teamwork, client satisfaction, people management, work product and productivity—my spouse is always ready with a good hockey analogy that compares those same values.

  1. Teamwork. In hockey and in law, great players elevate the play of their teammates. When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, he consistently scored multiple goals per game, but on a team known for its earlier exits in the playoffs. Yet Gretzky’s true greatness was manifested through the mentoring and focus on “team first” that ultimately helped transform the Kings into a team that was able to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
  2. Client satisfaction. The client should always have faith that its team is not only capable of solving and preventing problems, but also willing to put forth the necessary effort to do so. Hockey fans (clients) buy tickets to games and premium cable channels with the expectation that their team is capable of winning. Consistent losses, especially those due to sloppy play, erode fan support and manifest in lost revenue. If clients are not satisfied with their internal legal team, they may sidestep potential legal issues or, worse, make decisions without consulting their in-house lawyers.
  3. People management. A good coach or manager sets the team up for success by playing to the strengths and weaknesses of each player and promoting a culture of collective responsibility. Do you have the right players on the ice in the right situations? Does each individual player value an assist as highly as a goal scored? The objective has to be to win as a team, regardless of the role each teammate has to assume.
  4. Work product. While the goalie may play brilliantly the entire game, the only recorded statistic is the summation of each time he and his defense were scored upon by the offense. It is crucial for your team to always produce the best possible work product because in the law, a single breakdown can lose the game and be used by people to make future decisions.
  5. Productivity. A hockey game consists of 60 minutes of playing time. On a typical team, each forward player trains for years, yet depending upon his role, has bursts of ice time (shifts) totaling 12 to 20 minutes of playing time per game to demonstrate his abilities. Similarly, lawyers spend a lifetime honing a skill set that ultimately will be measured in small subsets of bigger projects. Productivity throughout preparation and execution is crucial. Without it, neither the lawyer nor the player will have the tools to deliver during those precious minutes of game time.

Janice Block is executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer for Kaplan Inc.

Janice Block

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