12 November 2018

The strength of your corporate legal team is very important for how you can effectively manage your global entities. Unfortunately, attorneys, by training, are not always the best team players. The personality traits that lead one to pursue the profession and training law school provides often results in people who are focused on leadership positions and individual achievement, not collaboration and shared success.

To make matters more complicated, in recent years, there has been a change in what organizations expect from the legal department. The days of operating an in-house legal department as a semi-separate legal firm are over. Now, organizations want a legal team that can drive economic value, becoming business partners who are able to work across units and specializations.

So, to help you assemble your next team, we have collected a number of considerations to keep in mind as you search out and hire your legal department.

Corporate legal team budget concerns

As you enter into the process, make sure your budget expectations are clearly defined.

Ask yourself, how is this going to be a better investment than hiring outside legal help? Compare the cost of a permanent in-house attorney with the prospect of continual outsourcing. While the raw numbers might favor outsourcing, consider how the continued presence and contribution of an attorney attuned to the needs and goals of your organization might change your business results. Oftentimes, taken in the long term, in-house help can prove to be a better investment.

Understand your legal needs to match your team members accordingly

What are your organization’s present legal needs and priorities? Try to be as specific as possible here. Are you more likely to be dealing with intellectual property issues or mergers and acquisitions? How are you positioned in terms of compliance and risk management? Balance your current needs against those you anticipate for the future.

As you search for your next team member, ask about what expertise they have in these issues. Or better yet, ask them to speak to their actual experience in dealing with these concerns for previous clients. Beyond their legal expertise, what do they know of the industry as a whole? This includes a familiarity with your competition, the market and any potential risks endemic in your type of operation. A thorough understanding of your organization’s business goals and challenges can be critical when determining the best legal course of action.

Seniority

The topic of seniority is a tricky one. In one respect, the experience level at which you hire will depend largely on your budget. More senior attorneys expect to be paid for their greater expertise. With budgets being tight in so many companies, you may think you should be looking to cut costs here. From that perspective, perhaps it makes more sense to hire a relatively junior- or mid-level attorney with the hopes that they can grow into the role, bringing fresh and innovative approaches to your organization’s projects.

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Certainly, this can work, and many successful legal teams have a fair number of junior- and mid-level lawyers who perform their duties exceptionally well. But this scenario does come with some associated risks. The money you save by hiring an attorney early in their career may disappear when you factor in any additional training a less-experienced attorney may need to handle the specifics of your organization. A more seasoned lawyer may also be able to avoid costly mistakes or missed opportunities that won’t be as apparent to newcomers. The experience of a senior attorney can be particularly valuable if they have worked in your industry before.

So how to know which side to lean toward? At this stage, it might be useful to gauge the complexity of the situations you expect the new team member to handle, and then hire accordingly. If you know the work will be relatively low-risk, then it seems likely that an attorney with a bit less experience will thrive just as well as a more experienced one. However, if you know that they will likely face some pretty thorny legal challenges, the added experience may be well worth the money.

The importance of soft skills

For many general counsels (GCs), the right combination of soft skills is the most valuable attribute to look for in a prospective legal team member. While legal expertise is important, knowing the letter of the law is not always as valuable as being able to operate on a team. You want a team member whom you can count on to collaborate when the situation calls for it, and who can react well in high-pressure situations.

Some considerations along these lines include their willingness to comply with your company culture, their ability to listen and communicate with both legal professionals and members of the organization outside of the legal department, and their willingness to learn the details of the business.

One GC, David Hill of NRG Energy, explained that he looks for attorneys who are comfortable with the idea of functioning as a service arm of the organization: “We’re not there to give answers and then fold our arms and expect somebody else to accept the business consequences. We all own the problem equally.” This openness toward shared responsibility is often the hallmark of a valuable team member.

Assembling the right legal team for your organization is no easy task. It requires you to look beyond your prospective hires’ legal credentials and evaluate their ability to work both for you and with you. In the end, there’s often a successful middle ground to be found between hardcore legal expertise and the softer touch of successful teamwork.