When I became the manager of a team of contract lawyers at UK retail bank Santander, I was completely unprepared for my new role. I only had a vague idea of what was required of me, and no clue about the difference between people management and leadership.
I eventually got the hang of it, but would probably have been much more effective if have had some coaching and been more strategic about my leadership. That’s probably a common story of any lawyer who moves into a leadership role; and that’s why aspiring leaders in the legal profession hire me as their executive coach.
I talk about the basics of leadership in my article “Do you have what it takes to be a leader”.
In this article I’ll be looking at three challenges that are particular to lawyers when they are transitioning into an in-house leadership position.
Here is what I think they are:
1. Lawyers are trained to be subject matter experts
As lawyers, we are trained to give advice rather than creating strategies or managing people. We take care of detail and form, rather than vision and strategy. When we then step into leadership roles, we require a completely new skill set.
First of all, we need to develop sound business acumen. Although a good lawyer should have that too, being the Head of Legal or General Counsel requires you to apply much more of it as there is no external client to defer decisions to.
Whilst you will have internal clients you advise within your company, you will quickly lose their respect if you keep saying that a matter was for them to decide because it is “a commercial issue”. This won’t cut it any more. You will be expected to offer solutions and take responsibility for certain risks and decisions.
We also need to hone a wide range of soft skills, such as influencing, stakeholder management, people management and leadership skills. They are essential to navigating company politics and becoming a key stakeholder rather than just a support service. My coaching clients are often highly successful and driven and come to me to catch up with soft skills that are not taught in traditional training programmes.
2. In-house lawyers are seen as an overhead cost
In-house lawyers constantly have to prove their value to the business. They are an overhead cost and sometimes seen as an inconvenience; maybe even an obstacle to doing business.
Leaders of legal in-house functions have to work hard to make the business accept them as trusted business advisors who add value to the company. And even if they do, it can be hard to demonstrate that value to a board that is used to measuring performance in numerical metrics.
Finding a meaningful way to measure and demonstrate the value of a legal team has somewhat become the Holy Grail of legal in-house functions.
3. Lawyers are trained to be negative
As lawyers we are trained to look for negatives. It is in our “DNA” to find flaws and risks, criticise and assume the worst; and when a risk needs to be accepted, a private practice lawyer refers the decision to their client.
As leaders of a legal in-house function, you need to have access to different perspectives and resources. You need to become more creative and able to position your legal advice in the light of business realities and pragmatism. Your job is to develop strategies and find solutions rather than problems. You need to understand the bigger commercial issues and be brave enough to make a call on certain risks.
What’s your experience?
If you are the leader of a legal in-house function, I would love to read about your experience of transitioning from a subject matter expert to a leadership role. If you care to share, do leave a comment below – or let’s meet for a coffee in person or via Zoom.
Fancy an upgrade to your leadership skills?
If you are the leader (or aspiring leader!) of a legal in-house function and interested in further developing your leadership skills, you can book a FREE Discovery with me or one of my associates here. Together we can explore your goals and challenges and create a bespoke plan for improving your leadership skills. We would love to hear from you.