Making the Right Pick: Building a Successful Legal Team

For today’s post, we are going to go back in time, way back for most of us, to our elementary school days.  We’re at recess, scuffing our Keds in the dirt of the kickball field. The sun is bright. The ball is red and nubbly.  It is time to pick teams.  The captains have already declared themselves, and now they are taking turns, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, or, as the case may be, the jocks from the nerds.

Maybe you’re lucky.  Maybe you’re fast, or have been known to boot the ball into the outfield, or maybe you have good hands for fielding.  You’ll get picked first.

Or maybe you’re more like me.  Maybe you’ve tripped as the ball rolled toward the plate, maybe your eyesight is poor and you don’t like being in the sun, maybe you’re indifferent to the whole game and would rather poke an ant pile or scribble in a notebook than be out here in this dusty field with this pack of pint-sized heathens.

Too bad.  You are now on a team, and you’ll be expected to play for that team, at least until the bell rings.

Building Your Legal Team for Better Entity Management

That was then.  Surely, we’ve gotten better at this, haven’t we?

The answer, according to an article by Lynda Gratton and Tamara Erikson in the Harvard Business Review, is yes and no.  Organizations across the spectrum of industries are recognizing the value of teams and using them to accomplish more and more tasks.  They have even identified some common traits of successful teams.  That is, they want their teams to be large, diverse groups of highly educated specialists who can convene quickly despite geographic differences and collaborate virtually to solve problems and provide solutions.

That said, these traits can also spell gridlock.  As Gratton and Erikson put it:

Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success. Members of complex teams are less likely—absent other influences—to share knowledge freely, to learn from one another, to shift workloads flexibly to break up unexpected bottlenecks, to help one another complete jobs and meet deadlines, and to share resources—in other words, to collaborate.

Team-building considerations can be especially complicated when trying to assemble a corporate legal team.  So many of these decisions depend on the type of business, the demand for legal involvement, the organization’s attitude toward risk and the budget allocated for the legal department. So how can you try to hedge your bets to put together a group that will work well together for your firm?  Below are some tips and considerations to keep in mind the next time you have to make those tough choices.

Who’s on Your Team?

The first consideration for building a team is the leader.  In our kickball metaphor above, the captains just “called it,” because that is what kids often do.  But in the world of corporate law, these positions are already set; the leader of each team is likely to be the General Counsel, Head of Legal or Director of Legal.   Teams will be composed of more experienced lawyers, junior lawyers, and non-qualified paralegals or legal assistants. The mix of lawyers on the team will more than likely have to do with the type of work the team expects to see. The junior lawyers or paralegals can expect to do more of the routine work, while the senior lawyers will be more heavily involved in decision-making and strategy.

Other concerns when assembling your team include the scope of their expertise and the ratio of specialists to generalists.  Smaller organizations tend to begin their legal teams with a higher number of generalists who are able to provide reliable advice across the spectrum of industry concerns.  As the company grows, it is possible to develop specialties and subspecialties, as particular members become increasingly proficient in individual areas of law.  Given the demands of the organization, a team leader will need to decide whether general knowledge is more useful than specialization, or whether the laser focus of specialization will help move the team forward.

In that same vein, a team leader must consider scope.  Will the team you are assembling be purely legal in nature, or are there duties that overlap with procurement, compliance, entity management or risk management?  You want to staff your team with members who are able to meet all of the expectations you are likely to encounter.

The size of your legal team will ultimately be dictated by your budget.  While it is perhaps optimal to have adequate legal staff in place in-house, legal outsourcing may be an option for some tasks, allowing you to increase your ability to take on more work or to meet tight time constraints.

It will be up to the team leader and the CEO to gauge the demand for the legal team. In some organizations, the legal team is a kind of afterthought, brought in once a decision or a mistake has been made.  But, increasingly, companies understand the value that legal can have in the planning stages of commercial decisions.  This early involvement can positively affect future legal outcomes or head off some legal problems before they begin.

The final idea you’ll need to consider as you put together your legal team is your organization’s attitude toward risk and compliance.  Often, the legal team is a core component of risk mitigation. It is essential that the legal team be aligned with the business in such a way that all legal risks can be proactively identified and managed. In an organization that is tightly regulated and risk-averse, you want your in-house team to be able to respond quickly and effectively to any legal or regulatory challenge.  It is possible that your organization is able to be more flexible in this regard and will want your team to spend its time and resources in other avenues.  It is best to gauge the temperature of your company from the outset so that you are prepared for whatever the future holds.

Team-building is tricky business.  Selecting the right people for the right job can make for some tough decisions.  Need someone to help talk you through it?  Contact a Blueprint representative.  We can help you design a team that is a perfect fit for your next assignment.