When pieces on leadership in legal departments were requested for this issue of Corporate Counsel Connect, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about but had no idea how to express it. Leadership is something that is inherently good in most every situation, but really difficult to define – you often "know it when you see it," but can't reduce the concept into an easy description that's helpful in situations requiring it or for those who want to cultivate it.
In law departments, leadership has many faces: the CLO, the managing attorneys, the servicing lawyers who work each day with the clients, and law department executives should all be leaders. And, of course, while every lawyer must be a leader, each must also be a superb collaborative team member (promoting harmony within the department, and in synch with their clients, outside counsel, external vendors, and co-venturists). And, let's not forget how important it is for every leader and collaborative team member to balance their innovative focus on the future with the urgent requirements of daily work. Most leaders are interested in continuous improvement and growth (which requires comfort with change), but the reality is that it's hard to "turn a battleship in a bathtub." In short, law department leaders have to be self-aware, yet completely tuned in to what and who is around them; they must provide distinguishing service, great results, and extraordinary thought leadership while hitting all the assigned notes as one voice in a larger choir.
I know I'm making it sound impossible, and I really don't mean to convey that leadership is so hard that it's not achievable. What I do want to convey is that while there are some folks who seem like "natural leaders," leadership is just not as "natural" as we have all been led to believe; it's a very carefully cultivated skill and requires hard work. The challenge of leadership in the law department is closely connected to success in mindfully pursuing that which will drive forward the good things that make everyone more successful and work more worthwhile.
For top in-house lawyers, leadership is not gauged by measuring personal legal acumen or claiming the record for longest hours worked, but rather is measured by how you can leverage talented teams to deliver measurable results and advance the client's business goals. Legal acumen or expertise is important, but it's table stakes; distinguishing value derives from legal executive leadership (hence, the reason I so named my practice).
I think this is true for leadership in law firms, too, but with significant differences. As firms struggle to move from being providers of Law 1.0 ("Hey, clients! Our associates use computers to produce documents, and we communicate all the time on our smartphones and via email!"), or to become providers of Law 2.0 ("Okay, we haven't really changed the way we work or what we sell, but now we can offer you an AFA, and we're hiring project managers and installing a new system next week, so we'll have lots more data to ignore!"), they're really unsure of whether they even want to think about Law 3.0. This is where lawyers will fundamentally change their business model to anticipate the way that companies wish to buy services going forward, as well as the kinds of solutions they want to purchase (which is not better management of problems, but the elimination of problems).
True law department leaders are thinking about how to leverage Law 3.0 as the coming moment that will define their careers and re-invent the way that law is both practiced and delivered. Law 3.0 is when lawyers stop thinking like lawyers and start acting like leaders.
So what does practical leadership look like in law departments if the goal is to move toward Law 3.0, but keep legal services rolling as incremental change is nurtured?
For general counsel, the trick to leading seems to be in finding the balance between their role as an accessible and engaged participant in the C-Suite and strategic corporate management, and their role as department manager of (and in smaller departments, to personally provide) the legal services required by daily corporate operations. I like to think of this as the challenge of keeping your eyes simultaneously lifted toward the horizon and fixed downward so you don't stumble on the treacherous path beneath your feet.
Many general counsel (except solos) meet this challenge by focusing their time and talent on the C-suite issues and appointing a senior department lawyer or operations manager to run the business function and supervise the legal work in the department. That doesn't mean that the GC isn't interested in or involved in law department operations, but rather that he or she appoints a second to manage the function under his or her leadership.
For the person who is the department's operations manager, the leadership challenge is to give effect to the general counsel's vision and direction, while enabling the daily work of the other lawyers and staff members. Frankly, this role is somewhat harder, in my view, than that of the CLO's, in that while the CLO has to be an excellent advisor and business-savvy partner in the company's leadership, the legal operations manager has to be all that and figure out how to staff the work, stretch the budget, deliver the right talent to the highest priority challenges, and equip the function with technology, support staff, internal resources, coordination with other corporate departments, and so on. Most lawyers don't have much (if any) training in these kinds of skills, and so the operations leader either learns on the job and finds people to whom important roles can be delegated, or fakes it, which is when they are most likely to fail as leaders. It seems that half of leadership in this role is learning when to let others lead, and then recognizing and rewarding them for it.
Given that leading in the department often is dependent on your ability to tap into the leadership and executive skills of others on the team, my top leadership challenges for legal executives include the following:
- Defining goals and articulating strategies that will drive the department's success as a business unit in the company, and then making it a priority for every member of the legal department team to contribute to their realization. Incorporate those goals into personal work plans and development plans, as well as performance evaluation standards.
- Planning the elimination of legal problems currently clogging the company's arteries. Stop worrying as much about solving problems as preventing them. Of course you have to solve the problems you've already got, but don't lose sight of this larger goal. And don't worry: You won't put yourself out of business by eliminating problems (rather than spending your time managing them); there will ALWAYS be more ways for you to demonstrate your value!
- Connecting department members' pay to results delivered. Hiring talent who are measured by competency (not their pedigrees or how many long hours those talented people logged), and rewarding those who put (or assist those who put) more points on the scoreboard, not just those who can read and analyze the playbook.
- Conducting brutally honest self-evaluations aimed at practice-wide continuous improvement that can include: client satisfaction surveying, 360s for leaders, after-actions at the conclusion of significant matters, regular evaluations of internal and external counsel results, etc.
- Embracing data and improved knowledge practices, meaning that we have to stop telling ourselves that every matter we handle is unique and requires us to reinvent the wheel for each iteration. The application of our judgment to the facts is maybe 10% of what we do; we spend 90% of our time on stuff that could be automated, work-processed, outsourced, or accomplished by trained/supervised non-lawyers. Think of the leadership initiatives we could pursue if we used even half of that 90% of our time for higher purposes.
- Recognizing and deploying the diverse talents and contributions of "non-lawyers" to legal work – we have to stop dividing the world into lawyers and non-lawyers, which presumes that what lawyers think about is important and what non-lawyers do is not. Given today's marketplace, it's legal talent that's fungible, and business and tech-savvy leadership that's distinguishing in a legal department.
How will you make your mark as a legal executive leader? Thinking about and acting on this may be the best time you spend in your career, and produce far greater results for your clients. Once you do, turn around: You may find that others are following their new leader.
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About the author
Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence, and success. Comments welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.