In this article for Bloomberg Law, Kirkland’s Erica Williams shares lessons on essential skills for legal team leaders from her experience serving in the Obama White House, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and now as a BigLaw partner. General counsel must remain mission-focused, implement effective communication strategies, and have the confidence to make tough decisions that minimize risks, especially during the pandemic.
Now more than ever, general counsel and other senior leaders of legal teams must prepare for the unexpected and the unprecedented.
Whether in a law firm, a large corporation or a regulatory agency, the most effective legal team leaders are those whose expertise, judgment, and integrity facilitate a sense of confidence and a spirit of innovation within their teams, allowing them to generate expert legal advice to help clients navigate novel challenges.
My experience serving in the highest levels of government and now working as a partner in a large law firm has taught me that leaders need many skills, but to build an agile, resilient legal team, three are mission critical: remaining mission-focused, implementing effective communication strategies, and having the confidence to make tough decisions that minimize risks.
Creating a Mission-Oriented Mindset
Legal team leaders should have the ability to cultivate a mission-oriented mindset for their team so that attorneys and other members of the team know how their work is tied to the overall purpose and vision of the organization. General counsel must focus on building a stronger organization for the future, not just on managing the crisis of the day.
In a world where the “urgent” can often supersede the “important,” they have the responsibility to make sure their organizations are steadily advancing the important, long-term goals of their organization while also deftly dealing with the legal issues that arise day-to-day.
Long-term priorities that often get sidelined during crises include strategic planning, training and development, relationship-building, exploring new development opportunities, reviewing the efficacy of past projects and initiatives, and identifying areas for improvement going forward.
Legal team leaders are often called on to resolve the most challenging problems the organization as a whole is facing, which inevitably makes for a high-stress environment. Many senior legal managers don’t burn out because of the work, but because they have forgotten why they are doing it.
Legal teams need to know that their daily work contributes not only to extinguishing the fire of the day but fundamentally advances the goals of the organization. This mentality helps them remain inspired and engaged. High-spirited teams also tend to be the highest functioning.
Prioritizing Open Communication, Building Trust
Senior managers of legal teams should also prioritize being effective communicators. They are often called on to craft and articulate potential solutions and risk mitigation measures to the C-suite, board of directors, senior executives and their team.
Communication in all its forms--written and oral, internal and external--is essential to building high-achieving legal teams. The foundation of exceptional teams is trust, trust that inspires team members to ask honest questions; share new, untested ideas; and ask for help when they need it. It is important, especially in the current virtual environment, to schedule time to check in with members of your team, not only to inquire about work, but also their well-being.
Cultivating an environment where team members can communicate openly and respectfully takes intention and care, but that environment is also one that nurtures innovation and improvement, which is key to sustained success in the long-term.
Making Key Decisions With Confidence
Finally, legal team leaders need to be able to execute with confidence in the midst of changing circumstances. It is critical that general counsel and other senior legal managers be able to gather needed information, make difficult decisions, and pivot quickly from one issue to the next.
In general, attorneys are trained to gather as much relevant information as possible before making weighty decisions, but are often faced with unprecedented challenges. When that happens, they must rely on the facts available to them, previous experience in similar situations, and their own wisdom, to discern what are the most important legal issues at the heart of the problem.
They have to exercise judgment based on the information available, with the humility to recognize that down the road they may need to un-make decisions and change course.
Being teachable, adaptable, and humble enough to acknowledge missteps and re-direct when necessary can prevent senior legal managers from being paralyzed in their decision-making since they are often called upon to make tough choices in fluid, dynamic situations.
Delaying decision-making often brings additional costs, monetary and otherwise. Legal teams that know their senior managers will make the big decisions with confidence and take responsibility for outcomes will work harder to gather all available information and anticipate unforeseen consequences. These are the teams that perform best in the long term.
Leading a legal team during this difficult time is no small task. These days, general counsel and other senior legal executives are facing a variety of complexities, from government investigations, whistleblower complaints, employee misconduct, #MeToo and other discrimination allegations, and an evolving regulatory landscape. Often these matters are coupled with negative media reports or congressional inquiries.
In addition to managing these challenges, senior legal executives are also now faced with new financial, safety and health issues arising from the pandemic. By remaining mission-focused, implementing effective communication strategies and having the confidence to make tough decisions that minimize risks, leaders of legal organizations will not only excel at managing present day matters but will help their organizations implement enhancements to withstand future challenges.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Erica Williams is a partner in the Government, Regulatory & Investigations Group of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. She focuses her practice on internal investigations and defense of companies and individuals accused by the government of involvement in securities law violations, white collar crime, and other business litigation disputes. She was previously a special assistant and associate counsel to President Barack Obama and spent 11 years at the Securities & Exchange Commission, serving as deputy chief of staff for three chairmen.