Ten Things: Managing a Dispersed Legal Team

A long time ago, most in-house legal departments were based in one location (or, at worst, one country).  Over the past twenty years, this dynamic has dramatically changed for many companies.  While a majority of smaller company legal departments still operate out of one location, not all do.  Moreover, many medium and large companies have their in-house lawyers located in multiple offices, including both domestically and internationally.  While definitely different than when I started in-house, I believe it is also better.  Much better.  Just like diversity in the workplace improves the company’s products and services, a legal department with members located in different places brings together multiple viewpoints, fresh legal analysis, different biases, and new work styles.

While this melting pot of differences makes things better over the long run, there are numerous challenges to managing such a group and bringing all of these differences together a way that functions smoothly.  How do you lead across multiple countries and multiple time zones?  How do you create unity in a team that rarely – if ever – sees each other in person?  How do you ensure everyone feels engaged and that their contributions are valued when they sit several thousand miles away from the home office?  All of these are tough things to work through, but all are solvable if you are willing to commit to doing the work necessary to bridge the gaps.  In my current role, I have attorneys in four cities in the USA but we are adding attorneys in London and Tokyo this year.  So, I will soon be faced dealing with the challenge of managing across countries.  Fortunately, I have managed teams like this before.  I’m not saying it’s easy, but I know it can be done.  This edition of “Ten Things” discusses the things you need to do to manage a dispersed legal department:

1.  Watch the time zones.  Sounds really basic, doesn’t it?  But, I am still surprised at how often meetings are set with little thought beyond those attending locally.  For someone in the Eastern Time Zone, a meeting at 4:30 pm Pacific is at 7:30 pm and prime family time.  A meeting at 8:00 am Central is 6:00 am Pacific.  It gets even more challenging when you pull in internationally based people.  For example, if I am trying to set up a staff meeting (or any group meeting) for a team based in the USA, UK, and Japan it will be impossible to avoid someone have to attend the meeting really early or really late.  Here are some ideas I have used to make this work in the fairest way possible:

  • Use an online planning tool to help find the time that works “best” for the most people.  I like www.TimeandDate.com’s international meeting planner (along with the other helpful “time and date” related tools on that site) to set up meetings in multiple time zones.  World Time Buddy is another excellent tool for this.
  • Rotate the pain points, i.e., make sure everyone gets a turn at the late or early slots.  It should not always be the “outpost” that gets the short end of the stick.
  • Hold two meetings – one that accommodates part of your group and another that accommodates the other part.
  • Alternate attendance, e.g., one week group A attends at times reasonable for them, the next week group B attends.  This is not ideal because the information for one group is always stale at some point.
  • Be alert to what is called “presence disparity” – the fact that people in a room tend to address each other and leave the people on the phone out of the conversation.  Constantly remind your people to address the team, not the room.

The one thing you cannot do is nothing and just look make it work for you and you alone.  That is a recipe for disengagement.

2.  Get to know everyone.  This is the best part of the job for me.  The easiest way to make people feel engaged and part of the team is to spend time with them (even if just virtually).  First, you want to know them on a business level, i.e., what is their role, how do they like to work, what challenges are they facing, and what are their strong points?  Second, get to know them on a personal level, i.e., do they have a family, what are their hobbies, favorites foods, movies, books, etc.  Basically, anything other than work.  People respond better when they realize that you care about them as a person and not just as an employee.  Encourage everyone on the team to do the same.  It shouldn’t just be the manager who’s investing in knowing everyone.  A team that doesn’t know much about each other personally is just a group of people on a subway platform – going the same way together alone.

3.  Focus on team bonding.  The best way to help people get to know each other is to find ways to set up team bonding.  The ultimate way to accomplish this is through an “offsite” meeting, i.e., where everyone on the team gets together in one location for several days.  It’s expensive, but I promise you it will be the single most effective way you can jumpstart your team bonding (and as your team expands start working increased travel expenses into your budget planning process).  Once you have met someone in person, your relationship thereafter is markedly changed for the good.  If you can’t get the whole gang together (and formal department rotations are not in the cards) consider setting up mini-rotations once a year where members of your team will travel to different sites to work for two to four weeks.  It’s still pricey, but not as much as a full off-site.  And it has the added benefit of increasing retention among your team as your lawyers get to experience something new.  If mini-rotations aren’t in the cards either, at least you should get out to see all of your lawyers at least once a year (or bring them to you).  And whenever you have team members from different locations in one place, at least host a lunch or dinner.  Breaking bread together is bonding 101.  Look for opportunities to do things that easily cross boundaries like a team pool for the NCAA basketball tournament, or a fantasy sports league.  Look for something that might interest everyone, such as the World Cup.  On the other hand, be careful when sending out announcements about parties, lunches, baby showers or other events to the entire team when some or many of those people are not able to participate.  That sends the wrong message.

4.  Technology is your friend.  Fortunately, technology provides many ways for your team to bond.  Video conferencing has become table stakes and hosting meetings where everyone can see each other is clearly the way to go.  The same is true for regular one-on-one calls with your remote employees.  Similarly, ensure you have a document management system, matter management system, and e-billing system that work for everyone on your team.  Use common platforms for research, such as Westlaw, Lexis, or Practical Law (it was actually my team in London a decade ago that first clued me in on Practical Law).  Always ask your lawyers if there are tools they need that are country or region specific (don’t assume the stuff you use in Dallas is the same stuff someone working in Paris needs).  Tools that allow your team to collaborate on documents in real time are key.  Check out Mural.ly, an online interactive whiteboard.  Use survey tools to get feedback from your team as a whole, especially those away from HDQ and with whom you do not see daily. Most importantly, use a work tool like Slack to create messaging threads just for your team and a place  – limited to the legal team – where you can all “hang out” virtually and share pictures, questions, stories, files, etc.

5.  Be sensitive to cultural differences.  One of the biggest points of failure, when your team is dispersed across countries, is a lack of sensitivity to cultural differences.  If you work in the USA and think everyone works or interacts in the same way, laughs at the same jokes, has the same holidays and “weekend,” you are sorely mistaken.  Start with the obvious, be sensitive to holidays and religious differences.  Find a good calendar of holidays in different countries and keep it handy.  Remember that the work week is different elsewhere, e.g., Sunday is typically a work day in the Middle East and Christmas is not a holiday everywhere.  Similarly, jokes can fall horribly flat outside your home country.  You may not get if perfectly right, but if you’re sensitive about being sensitive, you’ll be okay.  There are other important differences to watch out for.  For example, many employees in Asian countries do not like to speak out unless they have had sufficient time to consider the matter, ask around, etc.  So, don’t expect them to jump right into the conversation during a meeting where the topic is brought up for the first time.  If you think you might have an issue with someone like this, give them several days’ notice that you will be calling on them.  A great source for more information here is the cultural maps compiled by Erin Meyer which show differences between people of different countries along eight different scales.  Likewise, Richard Lewis has a book on what happens when cultures collide in the workplace.  These guides to cultural differences can help you better understand your employees residing in different countries.  At the core, you need to start thinking globally and not locally.

6.  Hire the right people.  Whenever you look to expand your team outside of your headquarters (and especially in different countries), you need to spend the time necessary to get the right person on board.  The person with the best legal skills is not always the right person for the job.  For example, if you are hiring the first lawyer for one of your subsidiaries located in a foreign country, you must make sure that the person you hire has the experience to deal with many different legal issues that might arise as they will, for the most part, be a legal team of one.  Likewise, if you hire someone too junior they may get rolled-over by a forceful business leader and you will end up with contracts and legal decisions made on the basis of who can place the most pressure on the lawyer.  Look for a seasoned lawyer has dealt with executives like this in the past and can better handle the pressure or knows how to get help when they need it.  And it is especially important for those located in an “outpost” to be self-starters.  You want people who have the natural curiosity to dig into the business and who like to work independently – they may be the only lawyer at that location for a while.  You will also need someone who is an excellent communicator (orally and writing).  They need to be fluent in your language.  Distance and urgency mean you cannot have someone who struggles to communicate with you in writing or on the phone.  Since you cannot be there day-to-day to manage, you want a hire who is comfortable working to set goals as that will be one of the few ways you can measure their success.

7.  Get the structure right.  Structuring the reporting relationship is critical to success with a dispersed team.  First and foremost, all legal personnel should have a solid reporting line into the legal function.  No exceptions.  Given the importance of ensuring that remote lawyers can properly function, their “boss” should be another lawyer.  It is perfectly fine to have a dotted line into the local or regional business CEO or President.  I highly encourage that your remote lawyers embed themselves into their local business unit as much as possible and, ideally, become a part of the leadership team for that region.  Even within your own team, your remote attorneys should be able to speak directly with the General Counsel if necessary.  While you do not want to become their de facto manager, as General Counsel you should have an open line of communication with everyone on your team.

8.  Manage properly.  The most challenging part of having a spread out team is how to manage properly, regardless of whether they are in the same country or thousands of miles away.  Here are some keys to managing properly:

  • Stay engaged with your team members who are not local. Weekly check-ins, regular feedback, consistent reviews are all key here.
  • Ask them for their ideas on how they would like to be managed.
  • Ask them for their ideas on how legal issues should best be handled in their region.
  • Let them make decisions or, at a minimum, let them help you make decisions that impact them.
  • Review their work often. Constructive feedback is very helpful to their success.
  • Tie them into the general administrative processes of the department, e.g., setting the budget, decisions on tools and software, meeting structure and content, and so forth.  Let them help “own” it.
  • Reward and celebrate their achievements and milestones, even the little things (like birthdays).  Make sure they know that you are aware of them and what they do.
  • Stay on top of their outside legal spend.  Don’t let them fall into the bad habit of sending everything outside and then managing outside counsel.
  • Keep an eye open for changes in behavior that might suggest they are unhappy, e.g., disengagement, sloppy work, absences, attitude.  It’s is tough being outside of the main office.  Try to catch problems early.
  • Tap them into company training programs.
  • Be sure you are thinking of your remote lawyers for promotions and engaging on their career path generally.
  • Find them someone on the ground where they are located to be their mentor or “buddy.”  Having someone local you can talk to and learn from is very important to job satisfaction.
  • If you email them during their evening or weekend, let them know that you do not need an immediate response so they don’t start thinking they have a 24/7 job.

Study up on ways you can become a better manager to them.  Managing is not a one-way street.  You must continue to grow along with your team.  If you check out, they check out.

9.  Get client/colleague feedback.  One way to help manage remote lawyers is to ask their clients for feedback on how they are doing.  This is an important supplement to your own observations.  It is easy to create a short survey to gage cline satisfaction with your remote lawyers.  After all, if the client isn’t happy, you really have problems.  Plus, the business loves being asked to provide feedback on just about anything.  Legal openly asking for feedback is a great way to endear the department to the employee base generally.  The feedback you get (good or bad) will help you find ways for your remote lawyers to improve.  Be careful when sharing the results in case someone was unduly harsh.  People get mad at “Legal” for lots of reasons, many which have zero merit in terms of performance.  Before you share, read the feedback yourself and be prepared to soften the blow if needed.  Additionally, get input from the rest of legal team about their engagements with your remote lawyers.  This can be very useful feedback, especially as to legal performance.  Finally, I always liked to call the local CEO/President for the region where my lawyers outside the USA work.  I ask them directly for their feedback and how the lawyer can improve (along with how the legal department overall can improve to help him or her drive the business forward).

10.  Don’t micromanage.  I saved the most important for last.  Whenever you have remote lawyers, be sure to avoid the urge to micromanage them from high on your headquarters cloud.  Nothing says “I don’t trust you to do a good job” like micromanaging someone.  This is why it’s so important to hire the right people.  Get someone with the experience and skills to do the job.  Give them direction in terms of what needs to get done, then let them do it.  Your trying to do their job along with your own means a) you will be overly stressed for time, b) they will never learn to solve problems on their own and will become ineffective, and c) unless they are highly unmotivated, they won’t stick around very long because no one likes to be prescribed in how they accomplish tasks.  Recognize up front that everyone had different work styles.  Yours is not necessarily the best for anyone else.  It is especially important to be flexible when working with your lawyers in other countries.  Ask them about the best way to get work done and listen closely.  Expect to “localize” the way of getting legal work done.  Don’t try to jam the USA-way of doing things on someone in a different country.  Ultimately, the only measure you should have on this point is whether things are getting done and getting done correctly?  If they are, the “how” doesn’t really matter.

*****

There’s nothing above that is an earth-shattering revelation.  Like most things, it involves a large dose of common sense and application of the golden rule of people management: How would I like to be treated?  When managing remote lawyers, the goal is ensuring everyone feels included, valued, and fairly treated.  It is not an easy task and there will be bumps in the road.  Having the right mindset will go far and help you create a high performing team that stretches across time zones and borders.  Most importantly, never stop learning about how to manage a dispersed team.  Watch what works for other legal departments and if you see something interesting, find a way to adapt their idea into something that works for you and your team.  If it doesn’t work out, drop it and move on.  Your team will appreciate you trying nonetheless.

Sterling Miller

April 16, 2018

Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel: Practical Advice and Successful Strategies is available for sale.  Described by the American Bar Association as “The one book all in-house counsel need to own!”  Click here for details on how to order.  Perfect for your library, or as a gift to clients or members of the legal department (or your next legal offsite).

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If you find this blog useful, please click “follow” in the top right and you will get all new editions emailed to you directly.  “Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my personal views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. If you have questions or comments, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net.

My first book, “The Evolution of Professional Football,” is available for sale on Amazon and at www.SterlingMillerBooks.com.

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4 comments

  1. Dear Sterling,

    Thank you for another valuable insight. I have a question regarding your point “Get the structure right”: Local legal counsel shall also ensure that international subsidiaries align to the headquarters’ policies and risk propensity. Provided that the local management has a tendency to act rather independently from the headquarters long-term strategy (imputing that they are mostly interested in short-term financial goals, and arguing that they know the local market and business usage better than the headquarters), I see the danger that local counsel could be in too much dependancy of their local (solid) line managers. How can be ensured that local counsel sing the headquarters’ song? Thanks.

    Best,
    Richard

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    1. Hi Richard – first, thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to write. I think you are 100% right that this is a frequent problem. In my experience the best way to deal with it (but no guarantees) is as follows: 1) solid line reporting of the local lawyer into HDQ Legal, 2) weekly 1/1’s with local counsel and HDQ manager, 3) hire a seasoned lawyer as local lawyer, someone who has experience to avoid getting rolled over by local management, 4) discussion with local managers about the role of your local lawyer and who gives the final orders (this does not have to be a contentious discussion), and 5) HDQ lawyers regularly visiting that foreign location. Best regards – Sterling

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      1. Thanks for the quick reply! Sounds like a plan. I’m not too familiar with (functioning) matrix-organizations. I wonder how a solid line into HDQ can be established, as the local director has the legal authority to fire the employee in the first place?

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  2. Ahhh – that’s an issue. Hire/Fire should be in hands of HDQ General Counsel. Local director can certainly weigh in on issues. If the local director has power to hire/fire, your battle will be tough.

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