What do legal teams look like? In the past, it would be an easy scene to paint: people in grey suits, sitting at nice desks, in high-rise offices working hard. These days, it’s not as straightforward.
Most aspects of legal teams are shifting. Pleasingly, the “who” is changing to a more diverse picture. But the most dramatic change has been reserved for the “where” of legal teams. The high-rise offices have been abandoned, at least temporarily, as professionals work from home. Our latest report, Trust: an antidote to uncertainty, shows that over 96% of in-house legal leaders have embraced remote working and have sustained it into 2021.
While plenty of ink has been spilled on remote working and best practices, less has been focused on the nature of high-performing remote legal teams. Guidance on team structure is quite different to know-how and tips for individuals to manage remote working. By speaking with several experienced LOD lawyers who collectively have spent decades forming part of remote legal teams, we’ve distilled 5 key insights.
1. Dynamic structuring
There is no doubt that joining a remote team is a challenge. We’ve previously written an extensive guide on how to manage new joiners, see Remote Connection and how secondees (and their managers) can ensure they Hit the Ground Running. When thinking about building effective remote legal teams, the extra layer of insight here from our remote experts is knowing when to apply heavy structure and when to loosen the reigns – structure doesn’t have to be static.
For your new joiners, you might have a written playbook and regular check-ins to sense-check their direction of travel. If you have a seasoned lawyer with lots of institutional know-how, you might just let them get on with it. As a manager of the remote legal team, don’t be afraid to apply structure in a bespoke way.
2. Single source of truth
Document keeping and matter management aren’t the most electrifying of topics – but they are critical for high-functioning legal departments. The ability to know where a matter is at and to locate all the relevant documentation empowers distributed legal teams to work efficiently and asynchronously. If you need to offload and hand off a matter to a colleague, whether nearby or overseas, an efficient, reliable and user-friendly document management and matter management systems is vital. If you don’t have a single source of truth, your team can waste hours and hours unnecessarily trying to piece together a picture.
Cloud-based tooling is a huge part of how legal teams around the world were able to seamlessly transition from the office to a remote setting. The key here isn’t to rest on your laurels, if your tooling is simply “good enough”, you could be missing large productivity gains enabled by more powerful and intuitive tools.
3. Macro management
One of our seasoned remote lawyers noticed that one of the by-products of COVID has been a noticeable reduction in micro-management. They feel they’ve been given the “bandwidth to fly”. The increased latitude, reported widely as a result of COVID, has meant that many legal teams have experienced a boost in productivity. An accompanying benefit to this autonomy is a boost in trust and confidence – something that was picked up clearly in our report, Trust: an antidote to uncertainty. Let’s not lose this as lockdowns around the world begin to transition.
A practical tip for lawyers in remote teams is to batch your items into one weekly meeting with your line manager – you can control how you want to raise your work progress with your boss. Some advice for in-house legal leaders – regularly revisit your management strategy to ensure it’s still fit for purpose.
4. Silly questions
One of the benefits of co-located offices, which is difficult to simulate remotely, is both serendipity and learning by osmosis. As one of our lawyers put it, you miss being able to ask colleagues “all the stuff you would swivel your chair around for”. One way to mitigate against this loss of natural learning is to create mentorship programmes. This allows your team members to have a trusted person to go to with the “silly questions”. Who do I ask about that? Where do we keep that? What’s the history on this? Mentors are likely to both answer the questions without judgement, but also nip any potential problems in the bud!
5. Skill up in remote working
In 2021 and beyond, it’s clear that remote working can no longer be treated as a bonus soft skill for managers and team members. Just as being able to use a computer may have previously been a nice-to-have in an employee, it’s now something mandatory. The ability to work and manage a distributed team will be one of the leading characteristics of high-performers. In LinkedIn’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, thousands of learning and development professionals around the world rated “communication across remote or distributed teams” as the third most important skill, behind “resiliency and adaptability” at 1 and “technology skills and digital fluency” at 2.
So, what does a successful remote legal team look like? Well, it doesn’t look like one thing anymore – it’s a colourful and varied picture. But there are common traits for the high-performers: seamless technology, thoughtful mentorship, tailored structure, latitude to fly and treating remote collaboration seriously.
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