Future-Proofing Your In-House Legal Team

When it comes to planning for the future, in-house counsel experience a different world than their law firm counterparts. Flatter hierarchical structures may mean a more challenging climb for ambitious lawyers, and career progression within an in-house legal team is often perceived to be almost impossible unless someone leaves.

But preparing for what lies ahead goes beyond the passing on of important knowledge before someone departs the team. We explore why mentoring and succession planning are necessary in every in-house legal department, and highlight some issues to consider as your team heads into the future.

Why mentoring and succession planning matters

For modern businesses, mentoring and succession planning are intimately connected – and vitally important. Why? Because the working population is skewing younger: a recent survey by Thomson Reuters in the US, The Generational Shift in Legal Departments: Working with Millennials and Avoiding Baby Boomer Brain Drain, found that Millennials will comprise up to 75 per cent of the legal workforce by 2025.

Millennials – known in general to express little loyalty to their current employers for various reasons – seek understanding and support in their careers and life ambitions, according to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2016. They also seek professional development opportunities and want to become leaders at work.

Mentoring is a powerful way of nurturing loyalty among Millennials and can help you:

  • retain the best talent,
  • avoid the costs of high turnover, and
  • avoid the problem of ongoing brain drain and organisational churn.

Yet mentoring doesn’t seem to be as readily available as it should be. Just a few years ago, a 2013 report by the NSW Law Society, Inside In-House Legal Teams: Report on a survey of corporate and government lawyers found 59 per cent of in-house lawyers reported that mentoring opportunities were accessible only to some extent.

The report also showed that even when mentoring was requested, it wasn’t always available. Depending on the nature of the mentoring request, between 13.6 per cent and 46.2 per cent of in-house counsel said they received a negative response.

Going back to workplace demographics, the connection between mentoring and succession planning becomes clear. The NSW Law Society report also found that 36.9 per cent of government solicitors and 26.6 per cent of corporate counsel are over 50 years old, meaning that in a few years time, the legal profession will mostly be made up of the tail end of Gen X and Millennials.

To ensure their continued success, businesses need to ensure they’re creating the workforce they’ll need. An important part of this is to provide mentoring, so skills are transferred and employees remain in place.

Easing the move from sole in-house counsel to a team

Mentoring and succession planning is especially needed when legal teams start to grow.

It goes without saying, but if you’re a sole in-house counsel, accurate knowledge sharing has several benefits, such as helping new team members integrate more smoothly, breaking down silos, fostering inclusivity and improving productivity. This in turn, benefits other divisions that work with the legal team and the organisation on the whole.

Whether you decide on an informal mentoring arrangement or something more structured, there are some basics you should cover:

  • Define the objectives of the program and the roles of both mentor and mentee.
  • Consider how the program is to be managed and by whom.
  • Think about how to make the program beneficial for both mentees and mentors.
  • Provide guidelines for both the mentor and mentee, covering the practicalities and boundaries of the relationship.
  • In the current environment of rapid technological change, be open to new ideas like reverse mentoring.
  • Consider how you can add flexibility and additional support to any mentoring program (legal know-how software can be a useful supplementary service for junior team members to learn from).

The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Australia offers a 12-month mentoring programme for its members. Visit their website to find out more.

Top tips from an experienced mentor

Claire Bibby, senior vice president and general counsel of Brookfield Property Partners, leads a team of eight people and is a member of various external mentoring programs and committees. She shared some of her insights on successful mentoring:

  • Mentoring requires a personal and flexible touch:“I liken my team to an orchestra – everyone has their instrument and style. Some excel with a pianissimo approach, others more fortissimo.”
  • Encourage engagement and a proactive approach:“My team take turns to write a weekly inspirational email. It might be as simple as sharing a Ted Talk that resonated with someone’s goals, or a motivational article to keep spirits high.”
  • Operating under the Chatham House Rule process can encourage people to be open about lessons from the past, share fears and failures and help mentees fully commit to the process and see it as something special.
  • “Two mentor heads, can be better than one”: in conjunction with one of Brookfield’s external law firms, Claire arranged for junior members in her team to be mentored by senior lawyers in private practice to give them a different perspective.

Succession planning to ensure continuity

In-house legal teams differ from law firms in that they often have more responsibilities and work with the entire organisation. It’s therefore crucial for in-house solicitors to be highly responsive to business needs as they occur and ensure operational continuity in the absence of team members.

While a key benefit of succession planning is ensuring business continuity, it also incorporates more immediate possibilities, such as if you are unable to work for some time due to illness or are taking extended leave. A succession plan should also allow information and processes to be shared between team members who can cover for each other.

Another important benefit of succession planning is that identifying future leaders not only reveals strengths in the workforce, but also weaknesses that need to be addressed to secure business and financial growth.

Dedicating time to plan the future of your legal team will save your organisation time and money in the long run; making plans early on to promote and train people within your company means less time and money spent recruiting external candidates later on.

If you’re not sure where to start with your in-house succession planning, consider the following first:

  • How easily can you get started? You don’t need to finalise the plan straight away. Indeed, a succession plan should be a work in progress that gets updated from time to time.
  • If you were unable to work from tomorrow, is there anyone within the team who could step into your role?
  • If you were to progress in your career or move to a different company, what information would you need to pass on to ensure a smooth transition period for your replacement and your team? Leaving your former legal team well-equipped to continue your work not only benefits the business, but can also help uphold your reputation in the industry as a responsible professional.
  • Is there anyone you already think is capable of taking over? Assess the suitability of your internal candidates by allowing them the opportunity to act in your role or other more senior roles.
  • External options: if no internal candidates are suitable, what are the best options and strategies for onboarding an external person?

For in-house counsel, mentoring and succession planning are not just one person’s responsibility. It’s a good idea to reach out to others within your organisation and bring relevant stakeholders into the process. This will help ensure that any programs to establish continuity within the legal department is aligned with the business’ objectives, and gets the buy-in it needs in future.

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