When you take on a new leadership role (whether that’s General Counsel, Head of Legal or something else!), you could be walking in as the first lawyer with a clean slate to build your own team. However, sometimes you inherit a team.

Walking into an existing team of lawyers is a different ball game. Having to step up and lead a group of people who you don’t know, and who don’t know you, brings with it its own set of challenges. So what can you do when you inherit a team to make the start of your new role as successful and smooth as possible?

We share some nuggets of wisdom from Stephanie Dominy, General Counsel at Snyk, who has been on both sides of the inheritance fence. Using insights from Stephanie’s conversation in ‘Your First 100 Days as General’ – a series where Emma Jelley explores the role of General Counsel with the legal community.

Get to know your new team

When you inherit a team, you have to get to know them. Who is this team you are going to be leading? What experiences do they have? How can you work best together?

An initial way to do this is by asking for a copy of their CV to get to know their experience. Although make sure you position this the right way and communicate your reason. As Stephanie tells us, people don’t want to feel as though they’re applying for their jobs and it can cause them to feel resentment.

Changes like a new leader will bring uncertainty to a team. People can worry about the safety of their role or even feel resentment towards the change. As a new leader, it’s important to reduce that uncertainty (for the team, and yourself!).

Time for face-to-face conversations is incredibly important when inheriting a team. This can be difficult if you’re in a dispersed team, or in a remote-working environment. However, make the time to have conversations with people because it’s a great way to ease uncertainty. Similarly, bring people together – through team meetings and fun off-site days – as a whole team to help form a bond with a new leader.

Learn how the legal function operates

Not only is it important to get to know your team as individuals, but also understand the role of legal within the business. Learn how the lawyers operate and actually spend their time. Stephanie suggests Slack, or a similar instant messaging, as a great tool for knowing what’s going on in your team.

Similarly, she suggests getting copied in every email initially. Again, this can go down just as poorly as asking for your team’s CVs. People can feel as though they’re being spied on or not trusted. Unless you position it in the right way and explain that you just want to learn.

I’m in learning mode. I’m in listening mode when I come in. I don’t know anything about this business – I want you to teach me. 

Stephanie Dominy

If you aren’t able to physically listen into conversations and learn, then something as simply as being copied in emails is a valuable learning tool. It will give you insights into the business, how people communicate with each other and the questions legal are being frequently asked.

Culture – adjusting to and building your own

How your efforts go down will greatly depend on the tone your predecessor has set, as well as the general culture of the organisation. If there was a tone of fear, for instance, then the team you inherit will react accordingly with mistrust, uncertainty and, even, resentment.

As much as the culture of the organisation has been set already with clear values that are outside your control, you can set values and a culture for the legal team. Being open about your ethos, culture and values as a leader will help to pave the way to working together with your team.

Dealing with the tricky situations

No matter how good your intentions are, you’ll have to face some tricky situations when you inherit a team. For example, you may inherit a legacy lawyer who is being overpaid when their skillset is considered. Coming into a team, it can be hard as a new leader to roll back on something which has already been promised.

After that initial phase spending time getting to know the team, their experience and following their work – if things are being met in the existing team then you need to make the changes. As a leader, Stephanie reminds you that you need to be firm about what your team needs but not everyone is going to be happy about that and be prepared to deal with that.