In the past, most in-house legal departments were based in one location. Recently, this dynamic has changed, and many medium and large companies now have their in-house lawyers located in multiple offices, both domestically and internationally. While there are numerous challenges to managing and operating a dispersed legal team, it can be done. Below we discuss what in-house lawyers need to know about managing a global legal department:
Bonding is Priority One
The easiest way to make people feel engaged and part of the team is to spend time with them (even if just virtually). First, you want to know them on a business level, i.e., what is their role, how do they like to work, what challenges are they facing, and what are their strong points? Second, get to know them on a personal level, i.e., do they have a family, what are their hobbies, favorite foods, movies, books, etc. Basically, anything other than work. People feel appreciated and respond better when they realize that you care about them as a person and not just as an employee. Encourage everyone on the team to do the same. A team that doesn’t know much about each other personally is just a group of people on a train platform – going the same way together alone.
The ultimate bonding exercise is an offsite meeting, i.e., where everyone on the team gets together in one location for several days. It’s expensive, but it is the single most effective way you can jumpstart the bonding process. Once you have met someone in person, your relationship thereafter is markedly changed for the better. To that end, if you are the general counsel or a senior leader in the global legal department, you should get out to see all of your lawyers at least once a year (or bring them to you). And whenever you have team members from different locations in one place, at least host a lunch or dinner. Also, consider formal department rotations and if those are not in the cards then consider setting up mini rotations once a year where members of your team travel to different sites to work for two to four weeks. Rotations have the added benefit of increasing retention among your team as your lawyers get to experience something new. Likewise, look for opportunities to do things that easily cross boundaries like a team pool for the World Cup tournament or a fantasy sports league. On the other hand, be careful when sending out announcements about parties, lunches, baby showers, or other events to the entire team when some or many of those people are not able to participate. That sends the wrong message.
Time Zones Matter!
Watch the time zones and be sure to consider more than the convenience of those attending a meeting locally. For someone in the Eastern Time Zone, a meeting at 4:30 pm Pacific is at 7:30 pm and prime family time. It gets more challenging when you pull in internationally based people, e.g., when setting up a staff meeting for a team based in the USA, UK, and Japan, it will be impossible to avoid someone having to attend the meeting really early or really late. Here are some ideas to set meetings in the fairest way possible:
- Use an outline planning tool to help find the time that works “best” for most people.
- Rotate the pain points, i.e., make sure everyone gets a turn at the late or early slots.
- Hold two meetings – one that accommodates part of your group and another that accommodates the other part.
- Alternate attendance, e.g., one week group A attends at a time reasonable for them, the next week group B attends.
- Regardless of when the meeting is held, remember to include people who are not in the room in the discussion.
Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences
Lack of sensitivity to cultural differences can cause big problems. Start with the obvious, be sensitive to holidays and religious differences. Remember that the work week is different elsewhere, e.g., Sunday is typically a workday in the Middle East and Christmas is not a holiday everywhere. Similarly, jokes can fall horribly flat outside your home country. Other differences include understanding many employees in Asian countries do not like to speak out unless they have had sufficient time to consider the matter. So, don’t expect them to jump right into the conversation during a meeting where the topic is brought up for the first time. You may need to give them several days’ notice that you will be calling on them during the meeting. Bottom-line is you must start thinking globally and not locally.
Hire the Right People
When you hire internationally, get the right person on board. The person with the best legal skills is not always the right person for the job. You likely need someone who has the experience to deal with many different legal issues that might arise vs. a specialist. Someone too junior may get rolled over by a forceful business leader, and you end up with contracts and legal decisions made on the basis of who can place the most pressure on the lawyer. It is especially important for those located in an “outpost” to be self-starters, i.e., you want someone who has the natural curiosity to dig into the business and who likes to work independently.
Manage Them Properly
Regardless of whether your team is in the same country or spread out across the globe, here are some keys to managing properly:
- Stay engaged with your team members who are not local. Weekly check-ins, regular feedback, consistent reviews are key.
- Ask them for their ideas on how they would like to be managed and how legal issues should best be handled in their region.
- Let them make decisions or, at a minimum, let them help you make decisions that impact them.
- Review their work often. Constructive feedback is helpful to their success.
- Tie them into the general administrative processes of the department, e.g., setting the budget, decisions on tools and software, meeting structure and content, and so forth. Let them help “own” it.
- Reward and celebrate their achievements and milestones.
- Don’t let them fall into the bad habit of sending everything outside and then managing outside counsel.
- Tap them into company training programs.
- Be sure you are thinking of your remote lawyers for promotions and engaging on their career path generally.
- Find them someone on the ground where they are located to be their mentor or “buddy.” Having someone local you can talk to and learn from is very important to job satisfaction.
Avoid the urge to micromanage them. Nothing says “I don’t trust you to do a good job” like micromanaging. Get someone with the experience and skills to do the job and let them do it. Ask them about the best way to get work done and listen closely. Expect to “localize” the way of getting legal work done. Don’t try to jam the “USA-way” of doing things on someone in a different country.
Like most things, managing a remote team involves a large dose of common sense. Your goal is to ensure everyone feels included, valued, and fairly treated. Doing so will help you create a high-performing team that stretches across time zones and borders. If you have access to Practical Law, you already have legal department management tools available to make this process easier and more effective.