What is Legal Leadership?

Too many in-house lawyers are currently pigeonholed as facilitators and not leaders. Change this with a few straight-forward actions.

Within any organization, in-house lawyers are likely to be among the most highly educated (and, ideally, compensated) members. Along with education and experience, lawyers bring an array of indispensable intangibles, from big-picture planning to tactical discipline.

It’s unfortunate, then, that too many in-house lawyers are currently pigeonholed as facilitators, and not quite leaders. It’s unfortunate – but certainly possible to rectify, with a shift in mindset and a few straightforward actions.

Where we are

In a study of more than 100,000 executive leaders, Deloitte found that in-house lawyers had the widest gap between overall leadership potential and their actual employee engagement – that is, their ability to connect with direct and indirect reports and stakeholders throughout the organization. On a scale of 1 to 100, Legal averaged a 54 for overall leadership, but a 39 in employee engagement – the only sector to have a double-digit negative differential, and more than twice the next-highest differential of 7.

According to Deloitte data, Legal Departments’ top five leadership competencies include:

  1. Technical/professional expertise
  2. Problem-solving
  3. Integrity and honesty
  4. Initiative
  5. Strategic perspective

Meanwhile, the leadership competencies where the in-house Legal Departments struggled included:

  1. Goal-setting
  2. Collaboration and teamwork
  3. Relationship-building
  4. Connection of team to the broader organization
  5. Motivation and development

It’s hard to read that in-house legal departments have a critical skill gap. However, on closer inspection, this survey is truly empowering. Consider the areas where Legal Departments excel (expertise, integrity and strategy); compare these with the opportunities for improvement (goal-setting, collaboration and team development).

It is fundamentally easier to improve in the second category than the first. There are tools and training to help people set goals, collaborate and communicate; it is significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to teach integrity and initiative.

In other words, when it comes to being a legal leader in your organization, there’s good news: You’ve already done the hard part and becoming a leader within your organization is achievable.

three women in a meeting

What to do

While every company, Legal Department and in-house lawyer is different, there are three fundamental steps that will make the shift from “facilitator” to “leader”:

1. Embrace the legal leadership role

True legal leadership means breaking out of the “lawyer” box – and adopting the role of business partner. True business partners:

  • Are not paper-pushers
  • Do not equivocate
  • Do not hide behind other people’s decisions
  • Have a clear point of view
  • Commit to a course of action
  • And sometimes, they are out on a limb

Rest assured that this is what your internal clients want. A BarkerGilmore survey of CEOs asked about the ideal general counsel. Seventy percent sought a “strategic business partner and valued member of the leadership team”, while only 8 percent wanted a GC to act solely as legal counsel and risk manager.

This space is not always comfortable. Lawyers are excellent at presenting the options and the risks associated with each option. In private practice, this is almost standard operating procedure - the final decision rests with the client. In-house lawyers must do something far more decisive and determine the course of action. Business clients do not always have time to weigh the options - they want you, their trusted legal leader, to do that for them. 

Embracing legal leadership in this manner means that you must be comfortable with the risks - you won't always be right, but you will learn that the act of decision making is a key attribute of leadership.

2. Set and share a vision

The leaders of other business units – Finance, Sales, Marketing and more – have annual plans and performance metrics tied to company strategy. Why not Legal?

True legal leaders do not get buried in busywork; they set and accomplish big goals, and they empower their teammates to do the same. (This one is a common challenge for Legal Departments, about half of whom said they spent too much time “fighting fires” to achieve any long-term goals.)

This is a major component of leadership, evidenced by the number of spots it covers on the list of Legal Department’s weaknesses, above: goal-setting, collaboration, motivation. But again, it’s utterly achievable; Xakia’s white paper, 8 Steps to Your Legal Department Strategic Plan, can help you get started.

In a nutshell, your vision for the Legal Department should include:

  • Knowing and considering your organization's strategic plan - how can your legal team facilitate this?
  • Why does the Legal Department exist? Is it achieving its basic service goals?
  • What do you need to do to achieve your goals?

Legal leadership means having a vision. Within your organization, your vision must facilitate and complement a bigger vision. Be part of the leadership that will help your organization reach its goals - be visible, be proactive, be a contributor. 

3. Build relationships across the business with legal reporting

To be a true business partner, a legal leader must have solid working relationships throughout the organization. Every function must not only understand what Legal does (and when to call); they must know how Legal adds value to their unit and to the organization as a whole. (Refer one final time to lawyers’ opportunities for improvement: note relationship-building and connection to the broader organization.)

That starts with smart legal reporting – reporting that is consistent, relevant and business-minded. Legal leaders do not treat reporting as an obligation, circulating legal memos or matter lists with no context. They take the opportunity to educate and inform, showing how the Legal Department added strategic value, minimized risk and advanced company priorities. They make their communications tailored to the audience, whether that’s the Board or the head of Sales.

Leaders recognize that legal reporting isn’t for reporting’s sake. Done with consistency, regular communication builds the trust and relationships they will rely on when it’s time to make hard decisions. People do not follow leaders they do not know, respect or admire. At some point, every in-house lawyer will make an unpopular choice or change; they are far more likely to succeed with business colleagues if they have shown a pattern of working with integrity, competence and the best interests of the company in mind.

beyond the department of no whitepaper - Legal matter management

Become an in-house legal hero!

If you're ready to become a legal leader and be an in-house legal hero, download our latest white paper, Beyond the Department of No: Becoming an In-House Legal Hero to get started.


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