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As the corporate legal environment undergoes a remarkable shift, the traditional roles of in-house counsel are expanding. They are now required to act as strategic partners, guiding their organization through the intricacies of business decisions with a legal lens. 

But this poses a unique challenge for legal leaders tasked with building and scaling an efficient legal function—identifying, recruiting, and nurturing legal talent with subject matter expertise and the strategic acumen to navigate complex business landscapes.

We spoke to seasoned General Counsel and Heads of Legal on what it takes to build, lead, and scale high-performing in-house legal teams. In this blog post, we’ll take you through their invaluable insights on building teams that contribute to overall business success.

Mastering the art of securing top talent

At the heart of every exceptional legal team is a pool of diverse and skilled professionals. When it comes to hiring, it's not merely about finding candidates with legal expertise; it's about identifying individuals who can contribute to the larger vision.

#1 Identify organizational goals

According to Adam Glick, ex-Head of Legal, Intercom, 

“The first thing is to make sure you delve deeper into the business and the product. And then understand the strategic initiatives for the business. What is the business trying to accomplish? What are their goals, objectives over the next two quarters, four quarters, or six quarters? You can then focus your efforts and energies on ensuring that you're helping move the company forward with those objectives and goals.”

Sandeep Chowdhury, Group GC, HCC Ltd., also stresses the importance of structured hiring aligned with long-term team goals. He says,

“You don’t want to hire people first and then assign them a role. A more suitable approach is to go to the drawing board, pin down your requirements vis-a-vis the business, and then hire for those roles that will make maximum sense.”

Once you’ve identified and mapped the roles to the business objectives, you need to focus your efforts to finding people with subject-matter expertise. 

According to Adam, bringing in professionals who deeply understand the industry landscape can drastically impact the quality of legal counsel provided. 

“If the business is very transactional in its nature, perhaps your first hire is going to be a commercial counsel to help you negotiate contracts. If the business is product-oriented and builds complicated products for large customers, consider someone with product and privacy experience, especially if you're processing or have a lot of data from your customers.”

#2 Look for project management skills

David Lancelot, ex-VP Global Head of Legal, eBay Classifieds, suggests complementing legal expertise with project management skills.

“Most lawyers aren't operational experts. They're not project managers; they don't have that kind of training. If you bring people who can do that and build a function, it gives the in-house legal team the opportunity to have some headspace so they can think about vision, mission, strategy, context, product, and become great business co-leaders.”

#3 Focus on building a lean team

To maintain a lean team, Ryan Nier, General Counsel, Pinwheel, advises hiring for specific roles that allow growth. He says,

“While scaling a legal team from scratch, I don’t immediately hire for all functional areas. I look for what I call ‘Plus Ones’ or ‘Plus Twos’: people who are really good at something the business needs but have an interest or aptitude in one or two other things that I think we’ll need in the long term. For example, I hired an outstanding Regulatory lawyer with a history in Compliance. It’s both helpful for the business and great for the person’s development and career. People who want to spread their wings into other areas are also pretty motivated by those opportunities. It’s a win-win. Then, later depending on workload and bandwidth, you can promote some members and, if needed, make the next set of hires.”

#4 Map your weaknesses to the candidate’s strengths

Ryan emphasizes understanding team weaknesses and building functions accordingly. He explains how assembling a team that covers a wide range of legal domains minimizes blind spots and enhances the overall effectiveness of the legal function. 

“As a GC, you should have a clear understanding of all the legal functions that your team is responsible for or required to do. Then, you must acknowledge the fact that you specialize in a few fields and not all of them. Hire people and build functions accordingly. GCs should be aware of their weaknesses and ‘know what they don’t know’; it is key to scaling the team.”

Doug Luftman, ex-DGC, DocuSign, weighs in on this; he emphasizes the importance of recognizing where you are lacking and building a team that can help you fill in those gaps, instead of always trying to be the most intelligent person in the room.

“You want to surround yourself with people that are the brightest and the best around you, and who just put you to shame. Bring in people that will give you their insight and tell you when you're wrong or when there are alternative ways of doing things. You want to ensure you have that kind of a team.”

#5 Speed up decision-making

Quick decision-making is essential to prevent legal from becoming a bottleneck. Adam explains,

“Be thorough, but be quick in your decision-making. Don't overanalyze and waste too much time deciding where to put your resources because it's going to take you a while to find the right person. If your business is growing quickly, you need to move fast. The last thing you want is to become a blocker because the legal work will just continue to accelerate for your company and you won't have enough people on your legal team to be able to support it.”

#6 Enable interpersonal interactions with candidates

Delving deeper, Adam highlights the need for strong interpersonal interactions. He invites the finalized candidate for an interpersonal interaction before rolling out an offer.

“When I've identified a candidate I really, really like and want to hire, I like to tell that candidate, ‘You're great. I'd love to meet you for a coffee. Let's sit down and see how we work.’ I tell them a little bit about myself and ask them about what they like. I think that's a really helpful last step in hiring before making a formal offer.”

#7 Prioritize employee experience

The priorities for law students and early-career professionals have undergone a remarkable transformation. Akshay Verma, Head of Legal Ops, Coinbase, says,

“Surveys and data reveal that, nowadays, people care a lot more about mental wellness and balance in their lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a work-life balance; it can be a balance between anything that matters to them. Those kinds of priorities have taken over. Things like compensation, choice, and autonomy matter a lot more.”

In the face of this paradigm shift, it is imperative to re-evaluate hiring and retention strategies. The focus now lies on providing an exceptional employee experience.

“Whether you're hiring fresh grads or not, you need to create an outstanding employee experience to be competitive. And that has to do with more than just compensation and stock option packages. I used to hear a lot about success and money when I was a law student. But now, it's family, time, autonomy, and happiness that matter. I think that's a great thing for human beings.”
Also read: When to Hire for a Legal Ops Role

Leading your legal team to success

When it comes to leading a thriving legal team, several seasoned experts share tips on effective leadership strategies that have shaped their teams and fostered a culture of growth and collaboration.

#1 Coach for growth

Celaena Powder, VP of Legal, Seismic, is a dynamic leader for whom investing in team members is paramount for building trust and success. She explains,

"I take bets on people who are talented and show a lot of potential. For me, coaching is a daily thing. It's not necessarily a quarterly sit-down or a two-hour coaching conversation. Instead, I try to be available so my team can ask questions like ‘How do I navigate this?’ or ‘Do you mind if I send you a draft of this response so you can give me feedback?’ I also try to be there to quickly shoot a Slack message when things get a little hot on a call or tell them to take a lap when the emails get a little spicy."

She also focuses her efforts on creating a culture where her team members have the opportunity to fail, learn, and grow.

“Our department gives the opportunity to fail. We let people take a shot at something, allow them to make a mistake, and let them try it again. That's how a lot of people learn, and that's how a lot of folks on my team have seen success.”

#2 Be open and approachable

Doug, a firm believer in genuine leadership, underscores the significance of being approachable and authentic. Building a rapport with your team and admitting when you might have made a mistake can go a long way. 

“If you're approachable and people feel like you're trying to do the right thing, people give you a little bit more discretion if you goof up on something as a manager or do something that rubs someone the wrong way.”

#3 Allow your team to grow

Empowerment is a cornerstone of Doug's leadership philosophy. He stresses the importance of giving high-performing team members room to grow and take on challenges. 

"You have to recognize that you can't just put them in a very narrow box and say, ‘I'm only giving you tactical stuff, and that's it.’ You have to balance it with empowering them to present to the CEO and the board, empowering them to drive strategic projects, and making sure that when you do give them those opportunities, they do it when they're ready and prepared to succeed."

However, Doug also emphasizes the significance of transparent communication, especially when team members might not yet be fully prepared for certain opportunities. 

“Be transparent and say, ‘Look, I'm not giving this to you right now, not because I think you're going to muck it up, but because I want to make sure you look like a rockstar in front of this executive or this individual. So, let's hold off for three months or so, and I promise that we’ll work on it, and I’m open to having conversations with you.’”

#4 Organize feedback and 1:1 sessions

For Doug, consistent feedback and regular one-on-one interactions are essential components of effective leadership. 

“My philosophy is that you should never go into a performance review where your team doesn't know where they stand or where they're strong and where there's opportunity. That should just be a validation of what's going on. All too often, people are surprised by the feedback they receive, because it hasn't been this ongoing dialogue through the whole year.”
Also read: 5 Questions Businesses Must Ask Before Hiring their First In-house Counsel

Scaling your legal team effectively

Scaling effectively means honing in on streamlined processes, leveraging resources efficiently, and introducing technologies that amplify productivity. Legal experts and GCs share their insights on how to achieve these goals.

#1 Streamline internal workflows

Bhavna Singh, GC & DPO, Subex Limited, tackles scaling head-on with a step-by-step strategy. She explains,

“First, I worked on setting up contract templates and contracting guidelines that every lawyer in the team dealing with contracts must use and follow. Doing so, we were able to bring in a lot of order to the system.”

With the contract pipeline optimized, she proceeded to restructure the team, clearly defining roles and responsibilities for each member.

"Previously, there was a bit of chaos with everyone doing everything. Now, we've restructured and defined roles, allowing people to know exactly what they're responsible for. The results have been remarkable."

David highlights the significant shift in perspective within the legal realm over the past couple of decades. He stresses the importance of scalable processes and technologies, emphasizing the role of legal operations in maintaining efficiency. 

"The engine room of the legal function is legal operations. It's about having scalable processes and integrated contract management systems instead of simply hiring more lawyers."

#2 Maximize your resources

Ken emphasizes that effective scaling hinges on the existence of a well-structured legal operations team. 

“You cannot scale without a comprehensive and well-structured legal ops team. I've worked in organizations where legal ops have been just a person who is usually overstressed and working a lot of tools. And I've worked with teams that have been more structured. The first thing is to be very clear and have an understanding of how you want to use an operations team.”

Ken emphasizes the significance of dedicating resources to support legal ops initiatives. 

“Legal ops is not bifurcated from the work that lawyers do. And there have been moments in the past where I put my hand up and said I need resources. And rather than funding another legal lawyer role, I funded a legal ops program manager because I knew the value I was going to get from having legal ops in the team.”
Also read: Aligning Legal's Limitless Potential to Business Goals: With Megan Niedermeyer and Brenda Perez,

Set yourself on a path to building high-performing in-house legal functions

The synergy between legal and business functions relies heavily on the kind of team you build. As per in-house legal experts, coaching and empowerment help create thriving legal teams while also attracting top talent.

As you strive for streamlined operations and effective scaling, introducing innovative tools like SpotDraft can further elevate collaboration and efficiency in your legal team. Not only do you get pre-set contract templates but you can also create your own contract workflows and enable a structured legal function.

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