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For in-house lawyers, there is an ‘I’ in ‘team’

Practising In-House
|Written By Cheryl Foy
For in-house lawyers, there is an ‘I’ in ‘team’

We use the words “team” and “teamwork” all the time in business. I think back to football analogies and rowing analogies used by my former CEOs. I recently watched the Olympic women’s soccer. After my immense disappointment at the Canadian team’s loss to the United States, the sense of admiration for the grit and determination shown by the Canadian women, the anger and disappointment at the decisions made by the Norwegian referee when Canada was in the lead and showing great momentum, I mused about why we use sports analogies so often in business and why, in so many cases, the analogies do not neatly apply in the business context.

More importantly I considered how they don’t apply to in-house counsel.

Sports analogies inspire but may be difficult to replicate as their utility may be limited.

As I watched the Canadian women, many things were clear:

•    their leader understood her responsibility and executed her duties accordingly;

•    the team understood and embraced the objectives they were expected to achieve;

•    the team acted like a team — they passed, they played their positions, they were supportive of each other and, at the same time, demanded of each other that each team member give her all.

It’s easy to see why we look to sport because in well-played sport we see what we strive for in business: great leadership; clarity of purpose; clear expectations; delivery, and achievement. Aside from the problem that sports analogies only work for those who relate to sports (football analogies have never translated for me), the basic problem is business is more complex than sport.

There are multiple leaders and many objectives, and layers of objectives, making  communication much more difficult and clarity essential. There are many more employees thus diluting the ability of each employee to connect to the overall goal and muddying the connection between what the employee does and how she affects achievement of the goals. Conversely then, when there’s success or failure it’s more difficult to reward or hold employees accountable.  

What we do know is that when teams work, they can make great things happen.

When a leader is able to set goals, make it clear to her team what they must do, and make them want to do it, teams can achieve great things. The achievement of the Canadian women’s gymnastics and soccer teams are two examples, but we’ve seen this time and time again. As a manager of people, it is essential that you act like a leader and understand that’s how others view you.

It’s up to you to create the culture and clearly define the objectives as well as the individual roles of those in your department. This may be particularly challenging when one measure of success is risk mitigation and the avoidance of particular events. Nevertheless, it’s up to you to communicate to your department how it fits within the enterprise’s overall objectives and what constitutes success or failure.

It’s important to celebrate success and address failure. When individuals are not held accountable for their respective failures to deliver or meet their commitments you send a message to the rest of the team that performance doesn’t count. The most difficult feedback I have given has ended up being the most rewarding — if the person you work with trusts you enough to accept that the feedback is objective and fair, constructive feedback can be the catalyst for personal growth that otherwise would not have occurred.

Helping your team members understand their strengths and develop in areas of weakness is a key function of a leader.  

To succeed as an in-house lawyer, you must be committed to working as part of a team.

Whether you sit on the executive team, are part of a business unit, are part of a legal department, or a combination of these roles, you are a team member. As much as possible (and subject to my comments below) it is important to understand the objectives of the team as well as your role in achieving those objectives.

It is also important that you are clear with your manager and your colleagues about the role that you are to play on the team. CEOs who don’t have experience in managing lawyers may need help to clarify your role and objectives and to appreciate the value you can bring. You should also understand the individual objectives faced by your colleagues and keep those objectives in mind as you work to meet your goals.

It is essential for in-house counsel to be seen as problem-solvers. Unfortunately, lawyers in general are better known for a predilection to tell clients about risks rather than present solutions. This is a key difference between in-house and external counsel. If you know what the company and your colleagues are trying to achieve, you will be able to provide solutions and avoid presenting roadblocks.

The concept of “team” may be a double-edged sword for in-house lawyers.

For the reasons expressed earlier, the concepts of team, teamwork, and team member are valuable. The difficulty that we face as in-house lawyers is that we must operate in accordance with an additional set of rules — the Rules of Professional Conduct  — that don’t apply to any of our non-lawyer colleagues and that demand we sometimes act in ways perceived by our colleagues as being “anti-team.”

Fortunately, we are seeing an increased awareness that too much team and too much groupthink are factors conducive to unchecked unethical behaviour. In my view, however, it is not the concept of team that is limited, it’s the perception that being a good team member means always going along with the desires of the team and never being the naysayer.

In fact, the in-house lawyer, who carries with him a strong sense of his obligation to the organization as distinct from the desires, biases, and fears of his colleagues and as distinct from his own desires, biases, and fears, may be the strongest team player with the greatest ability to see the big picture.  The response then, when faced with the criticism that you are not a team player, is to address the underlying assumptions about what being a team player means: It means doing the best and right thing for the organization.


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