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The Journey of Becoming an In-house Legal Team

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Growing has never been easy. Think about your childhood, when during the night, you would feel pain in your legs without really understanding they were growing pains. The same thing happens when you start the journey of developing an in-house legal team. The key question is: How can we experience the growth together and start running towards to same goals as one unified team?

Knocking on the Door

The journey starts with hiring – a process where companies follow similar stages: Meeting with human resources colleagues, completing aptitude tests, presenting a business case, conducting reference checks, and having a grandfather interview. What is not very common but adds significant value is inviting current team members (who will be working with the candidate eventually hired) to the interview. If there is no other team member, colleagues from other functions may be invited to join the interview to test whether the candidate would fit into the organization. Either way, once peers or other colleagues become part of the interview, you have the opportunity to obtain more enriched feedback about the candidate from different angles, and the candidate has a chance to learn more about the team/work environment he or she is joining.

For the assessment part, if the candidate has only worked in a law firm and does not have any corporate experience, it would be useful to highlight the difference: To explain that nobody in the company outside the legal department has a legal background so the candidate – if hired – will need to translate complex technical legal jargon into simple, easy-to-understand language. There may be times that communicating in this manner may sound too basic, less grounded, and remote from the sophisticated legal opinions you would draft in a law firm, but delivering legal messages in a simple and short way may be the only way to ensure they resonate for non-legal colleagues. 

Further, as a lawyer in an in-house legal team, the candidate – if hired – will be part of all challenges and opportunities that the company is facing, leaving him/her without the ability to forget them the way they can be in a law firm after a legal opinion is sent to a client. Lawyers working in-house will need to come back to them the following day. It is therefore a must to strive to find solutions, innovate, and develop an adequate risk appetite. 

Becoming One Team

Congratulations, you hired a new member of the in-house legal team! Time to on-board that person quickly … but what does that mean, exactly? The on-boarding process should include an understanding of business (which may be sometimes left aside) as it fits among legal systems, compliance procedures, and counseling. An in-house lawyer is needed to provide services that cannot be provided by a law firm – and that can only happen by understanding business. But how then to increase this business understanding? 

In addition to traditional ways of understanding things like products, value chain, customers, stakeholders, and strategy, the best way I used was to expand my network of colleagues across different functions. Joining their meetings, asking about their current challenges, and – when approached for advice – using their language, all can create great collaboration. 

In parallel, how can we ensure that the new member is fully integrated into the in-house legal team? What I would value the most, as a new member of a team, would be the sense of belonging. Creating this requires that members know each other well (beware of allergies), have a shared identity (find a name for your team), clear strategy, and mission (where we are heading to) … and a little bit of tolerance (not always easy). 

What’s Next?

Now that the in-house legal team has been created and unified and a business understanding has been developed, what comes next? Often criticized for being impatient or hungrier for changes and promotions than previous generations, the younger workforce does not want to wait for five years to get additional responsibilities (and a nicer title). Still, I believe those with legal background are very lucky to explore new opportunities. 

Maybe the new members of the team will need to wait until the Head of Legal quits to be promoted to the role. But this is not the only option, and team members should be encouraged to think more broadly: Can they use their analytical thinking in creating commercial excellence and their experience in employment law issues in human resources for designing better performance management? Can they take the lead in quality and regulatory areas based on a deep understanding of sectorial requirements? Career development does not always need to be vertical; all different linear experiences can add more perspective. At the end, everyone is responsible for his or her own journey – let’s make it more colorful along the way! 

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.4 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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