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Building the “Right” In-House Legal Team

There are myriad benefits to having an in-house legal team, from cost savings to greater efficiencies in legal advice delivery. The “right” team will certainly vary from company to company, but one thing holds true: building—and maintaining—a legal team should involve purposeful strategy and vision.

What should you keep in mind when assembling a rock star legal team? What is it that every team wants and needs in today’s changing environment?

To answer these questions, we looked to our recent panel with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for a Career Development Forum called, “What Makes an In-House Legal Team ‘Right’ for Your Organization?” The panel included Nicolas Jafarieh, SVP and General Counsel of Sallie Mae; Kathryn Gilchrist Simpson, VP and Deputy General Counsel of Northrop Grumman Corporation; and Laura Terrell, Deputy General Counsel and Head of Conflicts Management for FTI Consulting.

When Is It Time for a New Legal Hire?

Generally speaking, there are two instances when hiring a new legal professional becomes necessary. This first is attrition. When a team member leaves the company or unit, there is a sudden—and often sizeable—workload gap to fill. This is a golden opportunity to add value and/or to diversify the team by bringing on professionals with different areas of expertise or more or less experience than what the current team possesses. The budget already covers the headcount, making a new hire somewhat easier to accomplish.

Adding a new team member to help with an increase in workload, for example, is a bit trickier. In this instance, a strong business case must be established. This process can take months—sometimes even years. According to our panelists, the key is knowing what is happening with your team, your company and the marketplace. Maybe your organization is on the verge of a significant structural change or new regulations for your industry are being rolled out. It could simply be that the number of deals your team is handling has been consistently increasing year over year.

Whatever your motivation for adding headcount, consider using metrics to build an impermeable case for business partners. Data gives you an objective way to demonstrate the need for additional spend. For example, you could indicate the number of deals your team could handle with an additional attorney, thereby translating the cost into profit dollars. You might also provide statistics around the costs of missed deadlines or improperly followed regulations, demonstrating how additional support could actually save the company money—and unnecessary headaches.

In truth, making the argument for a new hire will rarely be without its challenges. However, identifying the numbers to support your request is an important first step.

What to Look for in Candidates

First and foremost, any candidate being considered for your legal team must have the requisite skill set; a “maybe” fit is not good enough. Education, years of experience and professional pedigree should certainly all be considered; however, the importance of each criterion will depend upon a number of factors. These factors include geography, availability of the talent pool, what you are willing to spend on a new attorney and timing of the hire.

During interviews, candidates should be comfortable and capable of talking through their work history and providing specific examples of projects. The rest of the interview is typically used to determine whether or not the candidate is a good cultural fit. The emphasis on cultural compatibility can vary across hiring managers and organizations. Some of the panelists at our forum said they place a premium on candidates who thrive in a communicative, collaborative environment. Another panelist said that candidates who prefer to work alone are fine—as long as they are kind and respectful and well-qualified for the position at hand.

If cultural compatibility is a priority for your organization, how do you assess this when hiring? Our panelists suggested having candidates meet with several members of the organization from different levels and business lines. Beyond giving your team exposure to the candidate, this helps the candidate better understand the role they would be filling.

Diversity was cited by our panelists as another vital piece of the hiring puzzle. All agreed that diverse slates and teams are essential to building a dynamic and successful business.

When Interim Resources Make Sense

In some instances, a permanent hire is not the best solution. All members of our panel agreed that creative use of interim attorneys and paraprofessionals can be a great way to supplement a legal team. The scenarios that warrant contract legal help include, but are not limited to:

  • Periods of increased workload that are temporary and/or inconsistent
  • Medical leave
  • Niche skill set or area of expertise your team does not possess
  • Stop gap while a permanent search is conducted

Another popular alternative hiring solution is the contract-to-hire model. This strategy can address several concerns associated with hiring, including cultural fit and budget. Most employers have felt duped at one point or another after having made an ill-suited hire. Bringing someone on in a temporary capacity essentially allows for an extended interview process. This is a chance to assess whether a candidate has the appropriate substantive skills, the right work ethic and is a solid cultural fit. This approach is far less costly than making the wrong hire.

Several of our panelists were enthusiastic about the contract-to-hire method, having used it on multiple occasions. Initially, they might have felt some concern about the quality of candidates when opting to go this route. However, most emphasized that this fear was unwarranted: some of their best hires started as interim attorneys and legal professionals.

Since contract-for-hire resources can often be characterized as an expense, they are a smart alternative when your budget will not allow for permanent headcount. Additionally, an interim professional can be used to strengthen your case for expanding the team. Finally, interim resources may be a preferable alternative to the fees associated with extensive use of outside counsel.

Should You Go It Alone in the Hiring Process?

Some organizations who are looking to save money will attempt to source candidates through their own talent acquisition efforts. However, our panelists all agreed that recruiting in the legal space comes with a unique set of challenges that may not be well-navigated by an internal team. It is also time-consuming, particularly when it comes to the vetting process. Assistance from external consultants is often necessary, whether you are looking to add a new lawyer or building an entire legal team from the ground up. A recruiter who understands your needs—and the types of candidates that will best serve your organization—can greatly accelerate the interviewing process and can significantly increase the chances of a great hire.

Planning Makes Perfect

Whether you are motivated by cost savings, improving efficiencies or enhancing the quality of your legal advice, an in-house legal department can be a true asset to your business. A team with expertise in both the law and your business can save you time, help you to avoid costly missteps and even enhance your competitive advantage.

Taking a thoughtful, creative and methodical approach to building your in-house legal group is imperative. With the right people in place, the team will be much more than a cost center; it has the potential to become a strategic partner in your company’s long-term success.

 

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