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:

  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.

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 leadership role

True legal leadership means breaking out of the “lawyer” box – and adopting the role of business partner. Partners are not paper-pushers. Partners do not equivocate, and they do not hide behind other people’s decisions. They have a point of view, they 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”; only 8 percent wanted a GC to act solely as legal counsel and risk manager.

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.

3. Build relationships across the business

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.

Become an in-house legal hero!

Ready to learn more? Download our latest white paper, Beyond the Department of No: Becoming an In-House Legal Hero.

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