We’re all in this together: managing high-performing legal teams

14 minute read  27.11.2018

The ability to manage the professional development and wellbeing of others in a high-pressure corporate environment is a skill that few general counsel would have learned at law school or during their years in commercial practice.

Key takeouts

  • High-performing legal teams need to be connected to their organisation’s purpose.
  • General counsel should instil a mindset where lawyers create new opportunities as well as protect against risks.
  • An atmosphere of openness and transparency allows lawyers to speak freely, admit vulnerability and enhance wellbeing.

General counsels are increasingly pivotal within large organisations. Their contribution is prized as legal technicians, strategic advisors and skilled diplomats; people embedded within the business, yet having the ability to independently safeguard its interests. If all that were not enough, general counsel also have a holistic role to play as motivators, mentors, and counsellors of in-house lawyers. Needless to say, the ability to manage the professional development and wellbeing of others in a high-pressure corporate environment is a skill that few would have learned at law school or during their years in commercial practice.

In October 2018, MinterEllison and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) – as organisers of the General Counsel Insights Series – hosted three roundtables to gain the latest industry perspectives on nurturing high-performing legal teams. Comments are republished here without attribution. Participants included general counsel from leading private and public sector organisations. Some had inherited a well-established team; others had to build one from scratch or took over following a merger.

The sessions in Sydney and Brisbane were led by Vered Keisar, Vice President and General Counsel Asia-Pacific at ResMed, a leader in cloud-connected medical devices and out of hospital software as a business solutions to treat sleep disorders. Keisar, who has previously worked for top-tier firms in Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel and Japan, has been instrumental in transforming ResMed’s in-house lawyers, recognised as Australia’s Legal Team of the Year – Small by the ACC in 2016. Her work has involved creating a collaborative in-house culture and transitioning to an agile outsource model involving supplementary help from external lawyers and temporary contractors. The Melbourne session was led by Carolyn Reynolds, General Counsel for Vicinity Centres. A former MinterEllison Partner, Reynolds spearheads a busy team of 65 legal, risk, governance, compliance and safety professionals following the merger of Federation Centres and Novion Property Group in 2015. The team was recognised as Construction and Real Estate Industry Team of the Year in this year's Lawyers Weekly Corporate Counsel Awards.

Connecting legal to the organisation’s purpose

At all three roundtables, high-performing legal teams were defined as those that are in sync with their organisation’s purpose. Whether their management remit is large or small, it is essential that general counsel know the business they are involved with. They must also inspire their team with a sense of mission for why they exist and what is their unique value. Often, in-house lawyers find it hard to set meaningful metrics to demonstrate progress. As one general counsel put it, “When we do well by sparing the company legal difficulty, nobody ever knows.” As a first step, legal teams should align themselves with the overall business strategy. This is crucial to build trust, ensuring that teams are integrated into project budgets and decision-making processes, not just consulted perfunctorily as an afterthought.

In Sydney and Brisbane, Keisar cited the key strategic objective of ResMed to treat 250 million people outside of hospital by 2025, empowering them to live healthy, high-quality lives from the comfort of their own homes. All functions of the business – including the legal department – have examined what they need to do right now to achieve this goal. Clear accountabilities have been developed for each lawyer, followed by regular reviews. Keisar noted that the conversations at ResMed have occurred in “smaller chunks” – typically during once-weekly lunch sessions over a long period, rather than extended off-site retreats. The view at the company is that everyone is a leader. “We are all accountable,” she said. “We own the purpose, strategy and goals; and we’re constantly challenging the status quo.”

One general counsel recounted a similar process at her company where the legal team tracks its involvement in all transactions and projects to quantify its value-add. “Each business unit has an annual operating plan. The legal team takes that and derives its own strategy and key performance indicators,” she explained. Another participant yearned for a similar focus on goal-setting in her own company. Its software developers regularly hold meetings where everyone stands in a ‘war room’ surrounded by whiteboards and wall charts. “They all know what they’ve got to do and they work in a very coordinated way. I don’t feel like we have that in legal but we certainly need it.”

In-house teams have traditionally played a reactive role, dutifully following instructions and protecting companies from risks. However, high-performing teams also focus on creating new opportunities. General counsel should reinforce this proactive mindset. At ResMed, Keisar described a team that is “really entrepreneurial” where young lawyers are constantly encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of the CEO or general manager. “Our job might be to look at an issue like privacy,” she said. “Where we can show the business that if we drive product development in a certain way, we will improve our privacy position. ”

So, it’s not only being reactive to what the business wants to do, but advising them so that operations can be changed.
Vered Keisar, ResMed

Another general counsel described how he had built his legal team using the concept of “three circles – social, technical and commercial”. By focusing initially on networking and relationships within the business, the team had been able to create trust in its commercial and strategic acumen. “It allows us to say, ‘If you structure a deal this way, it will get a better outcome’. That gets buy-in from the rest of the business so you’re not always reacting, you’re involved in the conversation,” he said.

High-performing teams or individuals?

There was a lively debate as to whether managing high-performing legal teams means simply supporting individual success. One attendee in Sydney suggested: “It’s easier to create a high-performing team if you can coalesce high-performing individuals, as opposed to starting with underperforming individuals.” Others countered that lawyers could be individually brilliant but behaviourally problematic, and it was important to factor this in when calculating bonuses and reviews. 

Many also noted that a crucial element of high-performance involves having strategies to manage underperformance. As Reynolds observed, “Nothing undermines a team like the sense that I’m working hard and performing and person X next to me is not.” Another general counsel commented: “It’s all very well to have a high-performing team if you have the crème de la crème to work with. Sometimes you have to bring along someone who is more of a plodder and make the best of them.”

Most lawyers are taught to work in solitude. They complete solo exams and assignments at university. When they get to private practice, they typically burrow away in secluded offices. Accordingly, some can be quite defensive when challenged on their lack of soft skills upon transitioning to an in-house environment. Roundtable participants gave examples of brilliant technical experts who “get lost down rabbit holes” and are unable to prioritise and focus. Another lawyer was cited who thought of himself as “the bees knees” but was outright destabilising from a team perspective, forcing the intervention of HR.

There was a consensus that high-performing legal teams are diverse. This includes, but is not limited to, ethnic and gender diversity. As one participant noted, “If we all did law degrees at the University of Sydney, it doesn’t matter if we’re men or women, we’ve still got more in common than not.”

Instead, diversity should involve a range of different professional backgrounds and life experiences. Reynolds admitted to the Melbourne roundtable that it is easy for general counsel to be more favourably disposed to people who are like them.

There is vast research that shows the more diverse your team, the better decisions you make, because you see problems from different perspectives.
Carolyn Reynolds, Vicinity Centres

A big challenge in recruiting and cultivating my team is recognising skills in others that I don’t have and bringing those forward.”

Another general counsel described how his organisation uses a “strengths-based” approach to help team members identify where they could best contribute. “It’s about what I bring to the table, but also remembering that ‘Jacqui’ brings these strengths, so perhaps working together will deliver a stronger outcome.” 

Managing down – and up

A good general counsel learns to delegate and let in-house lawyers have a loose rein – within reason. Reynolds described the huge workload at Vicinity Centres, which has recently undertaken dozens of shopping centre divestments, asset swaps and acquisitions of prestige properties. She noted that micromanaging the senior experienced people who report to her would not go down well.

While Reynolds advises her team not to bother her with the trivial “rats and mice stuff”, she expects to be notified when the company might face some reputational issue or regulatory exposure, attracting the interest of the board or CEO.

“I should be able to trust my team to make decisions, and come to me when they need input,” she said. This extends to allowing her team to plan their work schedules. “I will trust you to organise your day and go about delivering what you need to deliver without me saying you need to be in the office five days a week from 8am to 6pm. With flexible working you have to trust people to do it, unless they prove they can’t do it properly.”

General counsel must also vigorously defend their teams, devise resourcing solutions and manage the expectations of the wider business. Judging by the roundtables, many in-house legal departments are keen to sensibly limit the scope of the work they will perform internally and define when projects will get outsourced. One said: “We’re down a resource and that puts stress on everybody. We’re really having to think about what we do for our organisation, where is our value-add, and how we differentiate from our competitors.

Even though in-house teams are conscientious and eager to please internal stakeholders, it is sometimes important to recognise when external help is required, and when to push back. Reynolds noted that her legal team at Vicinity Centres didn’t necessarily have all the technical skills to negotiate with telecommunications companies with regard to a portfolio WiFi network roll out. She has also reminded her team that commercial pressures meant they can't always deliver to an exceptional standard – particularly if that meant correcting other people’s spelling and grammar in board papers. “I know that if you wrote it, it would be a work of art, and you’d win the Nobel Prize for Literature but it’s not our job,” she said.

Another general counsel said she expected in-house lawyers to come to her when the business was being unreasonable. It was then her responsibility to say, “That’s not our job, or the turnaround time is ridiculous, and you can’t talk to my team like that.”

Providing opportunities for career progression

Keeping people energised, particularly in relation to career development, is a key requirement in managing high-performing teams. At the Brisbane roundtable, one participant noted that high performers seek rapid progression; however “there are only so many partner spots and general counsel spots”.

At Vicinity Centres, engagement surveys have found that 80 per cent of lawyers are proud to work at the company, yet many are also reporting that they do think about moving to another organisation. Tenure in the company’s legal team can be as high as 15 to 20 years, meaning that senior roles rarely become vacant. “There’s a really interesting tension between those who say they’re passionate about the organisation and love what they do, and at the same time are looking for other opportunities,” Reynolds said. “They are all really ambitious and one of the challenges is finding ways for people to feel as though they’re progressing where traditional promotion isn’t available.”

Internal and external secondments, cross-functional projects within the wider business, trips to conferences, pro-bono work and assignments with not-for-profit organisations (for example, through The Observership Program) were all cited as ways to give in-house lawyers new experiences. However, there was also acknowledgement that “not everyone wants to be the star” and some lawyers will be content to stick to their narrow area of expertise.

“So much of what we do in the in-house world is not big glamorous exciting projects,” one general counsel said. “Inevitably it’s business-as-usual and you need people to happily grind their way through the procurement and IT contracts without complaining.”

Another said she had tried to give her team opportunities to do other work that she would have loved as a younger lawyer but “sometimes they just don’t want to push themselves”. Reynolds said that general counsel can offer suggestions, but the responsibility for action ultimately rests with the team member: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it develop its career.”

Open and transparent communication

Creating an atmosphere of openness and transparency in legal departments is essential. Keisar noted that meetings start with a ‘check in’ where team members turn off phones and devices, and focus on the purpose at hand. We encourage participation during meetings and often do a ‘round’ of the room to give people who do not always feel confidence to speak an opportunity to speak in turn. Side conversations are discouraged. In Keisar’s words: “You can’t have a meeting in the corridor after the meeting. Basically, I said that if you are not bringing things to the table, there’s no way we can resolve them. The elephant has to stay in the room. We have to talk about the elephant.”

Good teams possess accountability, allowing a manager to trust that when something goes wrong, a lawyer will put their hand up, not hope the situation goes away. But in-house teams also have to trust their leaders “not to freak out”. Reynolds observed that in 99 per cent of cases, there is a workaround to problems. “Nothing is as bad as people as make out in their own minds when they’re tossing and turning at 3 am and thinking ‘Oh my God’.”

Another general counsel with a team of 35 recounted taking on the role following a revolving door of predecessors. To build trust, she enforced a policy of “unlimited communication” – including disseminating two-minute video blogs and holding monthly ‘open days’. “The first time I did it, it was deathly quiet until 9:45 and nobody came in,” she said. “But as soon as the first person broke that and came to talk to me about what was troubling them, I didn’t finish until 6 pm.”

Owning imperfection

To some, making mistakes is the exact opposite of high-performance. Roundtable participants agreed that law tends to attract type-A personalities. These people are highly perfectionistic and intolerant of their and others mistakes. One general counsel commented, “I’ve got someone in my team who is brilliant. But trying to say to them that we need an answer on this matter today, and we can always provide a fuller answer later, is part of the challenge.”

At ResMed, Keisar noted that an essential part of the legal team’s work had been recognising that “all of us are imperfect”. The aim was to encourage people to contribute their ideas, as these carried value even if not yet fully formed. Team members are also asked to share themselves genuinely and authentically and to humbly admit when they don’t know things.

One general counsel remarked on the remarkable transition that had occurred in his own company where previously uptight leaders now engaged in public confessionals and soul-searching. “It’s been fascinating watching these Tier 1 technicians and control freaks go from a sort of, with folded arms, ‘I’ve never made a mistake, I’ll never admit to a mistake’, to leading what are almost like group counselling sessions,” he said.

Taking care of yourself

Above all, general counsel need to remember their own needs and set an example of self-care for their legal team. As one roundtable participant put it, “you might be a general counsel but you’re still human”. Concluding the Brisbane session on a poignant note, Keisar described the vulnerability and struggle to belong that she initially felt upon moving to Australia more than 15 years ago. “I wasn’t sure my strengths would be recognised in a different society. I remember feeling, I’m sitting here among top-tier lawyers who went to top universities, whereas I can’t even read and write English properly. They hired me because they must have seen something there. But I was constantly having this conversation, ‘Am I good enough?’”

High-performing legal teams depend on organisations acknowledging that people have complicated personal lives and deserve to be supported. Lawyers are particularly susceptible to mental health challenges because of the high standards they set themselves. By nature as a profession, they tend to inhabit a world of pessimism and risk, always considering what could go wrong. Adopting a more positive mindset is a challenge but Keisar urges more lawyers to try. She recalls laughing when she once saw Victoria Beckham wearing a T-shirt inscribed with the words, “I may not be perfect but parts of me are excellent”.

“Everyone has self-doubt and challenges in their life,” she said. “Most people have gone through difficulties in their work, their family and their relationships and you’re going to make mistakes.” As such, general counsel should work on developing emotional intelligence to become more aware of the human needs of the people in their teams. Because, in the end, managing the personal goes a long way to managing performance.

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