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The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is the world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, nonprofits and other private-sector organizations around the globe.

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Key Takeaways:
-  Based on talent needs and its unique positioning the legal department can be a driver of the organization’s culture.
-  Understanding your team’s aspirations and defining a strong value proposition will enable the legal department to be an efficient business service function.
-  GCs can excel in their role as culture leaders by role modelling, enabling and advocating organizational culture.

 

Companies have long since recognized that corporate culture plays a significant role in attracting and retaining talent, as well as on the overall business. We understand corporate culture to be the way things are done around here – typical behavioral patterns with potentially positive, and negative ramifications for a business. Given this definition, the desire for a modern, appealing corporate culture that enables business has become a focal point of most organizations, also impacting legal departments and their General Counsel (GCs).

It might not be lawyers’ natural inclination to embrace culture. Nevertheless, corporations and their leaders recognize the need to establish an attractive and business enabling culture in their legal departments. Buzz words like “business-enabler”, “change driver” or “agility” have surfaced as assessment criteria for modern GCs, adding to the many competencies they have to bring to the table. Additionally, there are growing calls within legal departments for “purpose”, “identity”, and “belonging”. Modern GCs often come from law firm backgrounds and have worked their way up the corporate ladder. Many of them struggle to present themselves as more than just legal experts – and taking on the role of culture shaping leaders can be a nebulous challenge.

In this article, we examine the intricacies of the legal department’s role in organizations’ culture journeys, and why this positions GCs as cultural role models within organizations. We conclude this article with practical advice for GCs on how to embrace their role as culture leaders and questions for self-reflection.

Culture demand from within: Creating a home for in-house lawyers 

Teams in in-house legal departments are inherently different from law firm teams with regard to their mindset, needs, and resulting understanding of good leadership. Law firm attorneys usually have a strong intrinsic motivation to make it to the top. Following an “up-or-out logic”, equity partners for the longest time could count on the dedication of their teams, as long as the career trajectory and compensation reflected the competitive market standard. In certain cases, teams are like project groups that can be dissolved and reassembled. 

Meanwhile, in-house teams have traditionally required a different kind of engagement and motivation, and thus need a different leadership style to support that identity. The lack of a “soldier” mentality in legal departments requires a different proposition more focused on values and principles, aligned and paired with a strong identification with the overall company identity and culture. In-house lawyers often have consciously decided against the up-or-out culture dominant in law firms and have high expectations regarding culture. 

Driving corporate culture is already a challenging role, but legal departments therefore face further cultural hurdles. Particularly compared to law firms, legal departments experience pressure from within: In-house lawyers are longing for a culture that provides both an identity and a home for them – making their work place a safe space where they can bring their whole self and therefore unfold their full potential. 

The unique positioning of the legal department

In addition to the “push” legal departments sense from their team members, the unique positioning of legal departments creates a pull sensation from the rest of the organization: Every employee will likely be in touch with the legal department at some point during their time within an organization. Legal departments are connected to all parts of a business, and therefore have the potential and the responsibility to act as role models, influence other departments, and drive the desired organizational culture. They can represent and disseminate desired habits and values throughout an organization – and being these cultural multipliers might be an expectation from the rest of the organization. 

As organizations undergo major transformation, such as digitalization, legal departments can be vanguards in adopting an innovative, agile, and business-enabling culture to spread these desired behaviors into the organization: 

Imagine the archetype of a “business-enabler” in-house counsel who does not only assess potential problems and risks, but is openly communicative, business savvy, and focused on a clear solution. Bringing these behaviors into their daily interactions, in-house counsel may inspire other employees to be just as openly communicative and innovative in their next meeting, resulting in various positive impacts around the company. In summary, today’s legal departments have the opportunity to make use of their unique positioning to drive culture and to fully embrace strategic shifts that their organizations are implementing.  

GCs as culture leaders 

As well as excellent legal experts, today’s GCs also need to be forward-thinking executives and culture leaders, on the frontline of new ways of thinking and working.

A strong culture within the legal department, aligned with the corporate strategy, can create a motivating environment for an in-house lawyer. An approach to unleash a transformative power that serves as a business accelerator for the whole organization is to create a joint identity – a strong feeling of cohesion within the department – by pooling individual energies towards an aligned purpose, common goals, and an agreed set of values and ways of working.

So, how precisely can GCs achieve this?

Inspired by the social identity theory of leadership, we believe that GCs need to take on four roles to create and maintain a strong departmental culture:

Graphic displaying different aspects of cultural influence ad influencer roles
Figure 1 The four leadership roles to create and maintain a strong department culture (source: Egon Zehnder based on Social Identity Theory)

 

1.    Be a culture sensor

The first and maybe hardest step is to create common ground and to craft the fundamental features of the legal department’s culture. GCs need to sense and listen carefully to understand what is driving the team, what is important to them and what they want to stand for. They need to show empathy and emotional intelligence. When GCs take on the role of culture sensor, they don’t define the department’s culture by themselves. The purpose of the culture sensor is to receive and synthesize the team’s aspirations and harmonize them with the organization’s purpose and strategy.  A common language and understanding of cultural dimensions might be helpful to understand and align individual preferences.

Let’s imagine a GC – in her role as the culture sensor - asks her team member what gets them out of bed in the morning and what they want to stand for. She identifies common themes: Being a trusted partner, collaborating extraordinarily and being transparent. Next, the GC might gather the whole team, mirror what she has heard, and together with the team, elaborate what they precisely understand as “being a trusted partner”, “collaborative”, and “transparent”. In the role as the culture sensor, the GC would connect the results of this teamwork with the organization’s goals and purpose, to help the team grasp their contribution to the bigger picture.  

As an in-house leader, ask yourself:
(How) Do I develop an understanding of what it means to be a member of the legal department?

2.    Be a culture role mode

GCs need to walk the talk. Communicating what the legal department wants to stand for is not enough. They need to represent the unique qualities that define the department, and be a role model for the types of guiding behavior agreed on by the team. Now, let’s remember the GC and her team who want to be “trusted partners” within the organization. When they came together, they concluded that being a trusted partner would entail being realistic and honest about risks, but always keeping a solution focus and offering improvement suggestions. As the cultural role model, the GC needs to act accordingly. So, when a team member approaches her with an idea she does not find appealing, rather than rejecting it immediately, she might give constructive feedback inviting the team member to take on a new perspective in order to find a solution that works for both of them. 

As an in-house leader, ask yourself:
(How) Do I embody what the department wants to stand for?

3.    Be a culture enabler

Culture can be defined as “the way things are done around here”. If we think of culture as a set of guiding behaviors, the legal department then needs rituals, processes, and structures to support that unique set of guiding behaviors and let their culture thrive. If the department wants a collaborative culture, it is the GC’s role to create space for this purpose, for example an open office space to meet and connect or arrange meetings, and new formats to be able to be more collaborative. To enable the desire for transparency, (digital) structures need to be put in place– such as a knowledge management system or a project tracking tool. 

As an in-house leader, ask yourself:
(How) Do I organize experiences and structures to help the department experience its desired culture?

4.    Be a culture advocate

Last but not least, as culture leaders, GCs need to promote and advance the core interests of their team. They should champion their department’s cultural ambitions and stand up for their common set of beliefs, both within the company and beyond. In her role as the cultural advocate, the GC needs to be vocal within the organization, and promote what her department wants to stand for: Being a trusted partner, working collaboratively and transparently. If these cultural attributes are threatened, it is expected that the GC will stand up for the group. 

As an in-house leader, ask yourself:
(How) Do I stand up for the department’s interests and beliefs?

The way forward

Ultimately, the interplay of purpose, values, culture and principles could be the solution to many of the legal sector’s shortfalls. GCs should further invest in developing and embracing the legal department’s culture, while law firms should begin modernizing their corporate culture. Although law firms are slowly grasping that the days of traditional value propositions are over, they have yet to kick-start their own transformation journey. And while in-house departments have already embarked on this journey, they have room to grow into a new era for the legal profession. 

Hopefully, somewhere down the road, law firms, start-ups and corporate environments will all have a modern, inclusive, and supportive culture that serves their unique strategies, making them all equally attractive to talented lawyers.

Authors: Dr. So-Ang Park, Consultant, and Lisa Birkenbach, Leadership Advisory Expert, Egon Zehnder  

Check out additional ACC Resources:
ACC Collection: Leadership Skills
Interest Area: Skills and Professional Development
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Region: Global
The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.
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