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This Practice Note provides practical guidance and tips for in-house lawyers on being a team player by supporting colleagues, working with challenging colleagues and sharing know–how.
Further information can be found in Lexis®PSL Practice Notes: Collaborating with legal colleagues to achieve quality and consistency and Boosting quality, productivity and transparency within the legal team.
The challenges of being a team player
The legal profession is often regarded as one where individuals tend to be competitive and collegial teamwork is not a natural activity.
Departments where there is a good collegial atmosphere generally perform better, and ideally, the head of the legal team will be trying to encourage the appropriate level of collegial behaviour.
Many organisations provide their employees with training on personality types and teamwork. It is well worth spending some time exploring the theory around this as it will give you a much better understanding about how to interact with different personalities. If training is not available within your organisation, you can get a reasonable understanding online, on websites such as:
Supporting a colleague who concerns you
There may be occasions when you have professional concerns about a colleague. Two common reasons for this concern are because they:
- do not ask for any support
- ask for too much support
Colleagues who do not ask for support
It can be disconcerting if you think a colleague is getting overwhelmed or may be approaching something in a flawed way. If you have no supervisory responsibility, it can be tempting to keep your head down on the basis that you don’t have time to help and your intervention might be greatly resented. In a well-run department this problem should not arise, because the team leader should orchestrate support or the person struggling should seek support.
If you have concerns, there is a lot to be said for having a conversation along these lines, “I bet it’s not easy dealing with [matter or person]. I can remember that [legal colleague] also had a tough time. Have you spoken to them about it?”
The idea behind this is that you are showing concern, but not offering yourself as the expert.
It is not advisable to ignore someone struggling, because if they sink, it will not just be their reputation, but the reputation of the legal team which will be impaired.
Colleagues who ask for too much support
If you have a colleague, who does not report to you, but is constantly consulting you, you need to consider how you can limit this without leaving them high and dry. Suggestions include:
- if everyone might benefit from more guidance on an area, propose that it is addressed at a team meeting
- explain to them that you are happy to help, but the ad hoc distractions are a problem, so why not convert it into having a regular chat over lunch or a coffee
- encourage them to form their own view of how they should proceed and then take it to their boss for endorsement—collegial health checking/peer review is a good approach, but should not relieve the head of the team from providing support or guidance where warranted
The key thing to remember with filing is that you have an opportunity to make life easier for colleagues as well as yourself if this is done well.
Exercise a bit of self-discipline as to how you file, when and where.
You owe it to your colleagues to ensure that:
- key documents and emails are accessible and not just stored on your own device, so that someone else can take over a matter at short notice
- at regular intervals (maybe weekly) you do some housekeeping to delete documents which do not need to be retained or file them correctly in folders in a way that will make sense to someone else
Sharing know-how is a need to do not just a nice to do.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of intending to do it when you have more time. Not sharing know-how on a timely basis may deprive a colleague of something which would have been really useful to them. However, you do not want to be bombarding colleagues with information which may or may not be of interest.
There are some questions you can ask yourself on a regular basis (fortnightly or monthly):
- what I have learned about what the business is doing and how it can be supported which would be useful to others in the legal team?
- am I keeping up to date with legal developments in my area of focus—judicial decisions, proposed regulations, informative analysis?
A good approach is to allocate areas of focus amongst members of the team, giving each the responsibility to brief colleagues. This tends to be more achievable than everyone trying to keep an eye out for everything that might be relevant. Whilst this approach can work as a cooperative, it is more reliable if it is something which the head of the team monitors and is addressed in individual objectives. Once you have your allocated focus, make a plan of which conferences you need to attend, which information services and alerts you need to sign up for and which networking groups you should join.
In response to both questions, ask yourself:
- how can I share this information in a way which balances the effort I need to make with the relevance to the recipient(s)?
- should I mention what I have found out in an email?
- should I go a bit further and describe what I think the implications might be or is this jumping the gun?
- will there be an opportunity at the next team meeting to raise it? (Team meetings can be an important catalyst for know-how sharing, but they should not be the only catalyst).
Grasping opportunities to gain management experience without creating tensions
There is no avoiding some processes and housekeeping to make sure the legal department functions smoothly.
Whilst some processes may be owned by the head of department or entrusted to support staff, there may be improvements to propose and implement. If you identify such opportunities, sharing your suggestions is a good test of your diplomacy and people skills, both vital skills for a management role. If you get it wrong, you risk souring relations with your boss and your colleagues. If you get it right, it is good experience for the day you may be leading your own department.
Behaving in a way which is consistent with, but does not presume, promotion
Being professionally collegial and generating respect from your colleagues is an excellent way of preparing for the possibility that one day you may be promoted to lead them.