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From Lawyer to Leader: How to Build a Strong Legal Team Culture

“Culture eats strategy for lunch.” That quote is attributed to Peter Drucker, the father of modern management theory. It expresses the fundamental importance of culture—that culture drives people’s behavior, either by achieving the organizational or team strategy, or by undermining it.

Every organization and every team within it has a culture, whether intentional and driven by its leadership or not. It is defined by the behaviors of leaders and the behaviors that they incentivize and tolerate in others.

Positive, powerful, intentionally created culture will support the leader’s vision, attract and retain talent, and ensure results. In the absence of leadership-driven culture, however, an unintentional culture will be created by the strongest personalities in the room, or by the existing incentive structure, often leading to negativity, lack of focus and issues with recruiting and retention.

As a general counsel, you play many roles: trusted advisor to the C-suite and the Board, senior legal voice representing the interests of the company and leader of a team of lawyers. One of your most important jobs as a leader is to drive a culture that fosters team engagement, commitment to the organization and success as individuals and as a whole.

Because legal supports the broader organization, it would be easy to assume that the company culture must dictate the culture of your team. In fact, because legal is an advisory and protective function, the culture of the legal team will generally be a little different than the company culture. Of course, the legal team culture must be consistent with and complement the corporate culture in order for the team to be successful. For example, if you are in a highly creative industry such as advertising, robotics or graphic design, your legal team culture likely will be expected to take a creative approach to client issues.

So, how do you build a team culture that will drive behaviors that lead to success and engagement?

Here are some steps to follow:

Define the culture you wish to develop. Be specific! Just saying “I want a top notch legal department” doesn’t provide enough direction. What kind of behaviors do you want to foster on your team? Do you want your team members to be creative problem solvers? Team players? Risk takers? How do you want the business to view your team? For example, the legal leadership team of a technology consulting firm wanted to replace a culture of individual contributors with one that was much more team oriented. The idea was to encourage some risk-taking with the benefit of more than one person assessing and managing the risk. They tweaked the company-wide performance management process to encourage teamwork and risk-taking and shared success stories within the group. They even denied a promotion to a lawyer who achieved good results but did not demonstrate the collegiality and cooperative behavior that leadership was trying to promote.

Connect the desired cultural vision to what motivates your team members. Think beyond financial incentives and promotions, as those are very limited. If you can tap into the intrinsic motivations of the team, you will be rewarded with high engagement and productivity. To find out what motivates your people, ask them, either directly or through your management team. Are they motivated by recognition? By altruism? By having an impact on the business? Connecting the individual motivations of team members with the culture you are seeking to create greatly enhances the likelihood of success. We recently worked with a company that asked us to conduct a Hogan Assessment on every member of the newly formed compliance team. We found that most shared altruism as a significant value. When the team leadership asked us to help define the desired team culture, we worked with the leadership team to find ways to frame the mission and culture of the team through the benefits and protections their work provides to the public.

Reinforce the behaviors you want to see. Changing behavior requires repetition. Leaders must opportunities for your people to engage in the behaviors that support your desired culture. For example, if you want your lawyers to be creative problem solvers, run your meetings in a way that encourages brainstorming and doesn’t punish bad ideas. Or, if you want your people be more business oriented, bring key business people to your meetings to discuss issues and look for opportunities for your people to join their internal clients for meetings or training.

Ensure the metrics are aligned with the behaviors you are trying to encourage. It’s important that you do not reward people who do the opposite of what you say you want—even if they produce results. For example, if you want a highly collaborative team, find ways to recognize collaboration rather than reward individual performers. A large public company used to stack rank employees and terminate the bottom ten percent every year. In the legal department, this created unhealthy competition and lead to the inevitable: lawyers were reluctant to cooperate with each other.  In some cases, they actively undermine each other. Meanwhile, the general counsel was trying to promote a culture of teamwork. No amount of corporate messaging around teamwork made any differences as long as people knew that they would lose their jobs if they were in the bottom ten percent. Only when the company abandoned the forced stack ranking approach did they see the desired change in behavior.

Communicate relentlessly. Reinforce the culture through frequent and consistent messaging. Celebrate examples of people who are displaying desired behavior. Invite the team to come up with ideas that will promote the culture. Messaging alone is not enough, but when coupled with the right behaviors, clear messaging can help establish the culture you are trying to create. Look for opportunities to create programs or events that support the culture. If your team is highly altruistic, consider a team-building event that involves doing work for a non-profit. If your culture is defined as one global team, create cross-border working groups to solve problems.

Lead by example—every day. When it comes to culture, leaders need to walk the talk. If your actions are not consistent with your words, you will lose credibility and make it very difficult to establish your desired culture.

To be a good leader, you must first define the type of legal department you want to lead. Then, create a culture that promotes the behaviors and attracts the people you need to reach that goal. Building a culture takes time, thought and consistent action. It is also the best investment you can make in your team.

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