Where Are Your Legal Gaps? Strategies for Mapping Your Legal Team Today and for the Future

It has been a bumpy ride for corporations, and the economy in general, over the last few years.  Indeed, managing a legal department in any company, big or small, is not for the faint of heart.  Not only is the law in a constant state of flux – with significant changes ranging from employment law matters to a proliferation of high-stakes litigations – but the rapidly changing digital landscape has forced companies to change the way they execute their core business functions.

That all means that you, as the General Counsel of your organization, need to regularly take stock of your legal department to see if there are any gaps in the competencies of your team, and fill those gaps accordingly.  Does that mean hire new attorneys?  Perhaps.  Yet, as you may well remember, – look before you leap.

We will discuss with you some of the areas you need to think about before jumping into the hiring process to fill legal gaps.  First, you need to assess whether you even have gaps in the first instance.  Then, if you ultimately conclude that you have gaps to fill, the next step is to discern whether you should be looking for experience or potential.  Finally, be sure that your hiring process incorporates an appreciation for resilience and agility, so that you prepare your organization for changes in the future.

By following the general guidelines below, you will be better equipped to plan for your legal department today and into the future.

Assessment Strategies to Evaluate Competencies and Recruiting Needs

As they say, “knowing you have a problem is the first step to solving it.”  So, the first order of business for you is to figure out whether you have a legal gap to begin with.  How do you do that?  You do that by basically taking a realistic look in the mirror, i.e., take a critical eye to your legal department’s processes and skill sets.

To help you in that process, here are three strategies you can employ to evaluate your department’s competencies.

  1. Competency Models

Having a model of what legal competencies or skills you need in relation to the core business functions of your company is vital.  If you have a competency model, then it may be time to update it to reflect your company’s current and potential future needs.  If you do not have a competency model already, then now is the time to create one.

This may not be as complicated as it sounds.  In essence, a competency model is a list of the functions and business needs that exist in your company in one column, and a list of the legal skills and competencies required to meet those business needs in the other.  If there is a business need and no people with those competencies in your legal department, then you know you have a gap.

  1. Revisit Everyone’s Roles

How often is it that you go into a project thinking that you need to do X, and then end up spending all of your time on Y?  That happens with in-house counsel positions frequently.  So, another part of assessing your department’s competencies is to revisit the job descriptions of your staff.  See if they are actually doing what is laid out in the job description, or if they are meeting some other business need instead.  Then, adjust the job descriptions accordingly.

You may also assess each team member against their position description and include the future competencies. By following this process you have accomplished two goals; where and how are your individual legal team members meeting or exceeding their current objectives and what are needs “growing” forward? Are their developmental opportunities a part of succession planning for professionals to develop future skill sets? (See Succession Planning https://www.princetonlegal.com/blog/market-strategies-for-a-successful-legal-succession-plan/#.XZqMIUbYpaQ for detailed succession planning strategies)

  1. Train ‘Em Up

Sometimes, you may perceive that you have a legal gap after doing your competency model, but realize that, in practice, you already have individuals who are adaptable enough to fill in the gaps with training.  Perhaps those people are already trying to fill a gap (as you may learn by revisiting roles in step 2, above), and they just need the extra support and professional development to comfortably take on the new role. Investing in future training may reduce turnover and improve motivation. You have invested in your team- that’s usually well received.

Of course, while it is sometimes possible to fill gaps with the resources you already have, many times your assessment will reveal that you have a need.  Therefore, you must recruit new attorneys.  Accordingly, that brings you to the next phase – whether to focus on potential or experience.

Hiring for Potential vs. Past Performance

As a manager of people, you may have some experience with this concept.  When recruiting for new hires – particularly attorneys – you are often confronted with the choice of whether to recruit with an eye on finding attorneys with high potential, or with great past performance.

We  know that in the legal field past performance, i.e., experience, tends to be the most important factor in hiring.  That is not surprising given that the gist of any resume is what an attorney has already done in his or her career.  Further, job posts virtually always require some experience in a particular field.  That just makes practical sense.  If you need someone to handle, say, a claims position at an insurance company, that person should know something about insurance law, and the activity being insured.

It may also be worth your while to consider whether hiring for potential might be more advantageous to fill certain legal gaps.  In fact, there are a few benefits to hiring for potential rather than by past performance, as follows:

  • Flexibility. People who lack experience do not come to you with any “hard and fast” notions about how something needs to be done.  That could make training far easier, and a good bit more pleasant.
  • Fresh Perspectives. Someone coming into a new area of the law, after having experience elsewhere, could be a huge asset.  Consider that former public defender who has been spending the last five years negotiating plea deals and handling jury trials.  While at first blush, you may think that a former public defender has no business as in-house counsel in your chemical company.  But think again.  That attorney may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to negotiating with vendors, minimizing points of friction, and giving public presentations on behalf of the department, or company.
  • Lower Salary Expectations. An attorney with a lot of potential, but not a lot of experience in your company’s business, will know that he or she cannot demand the salary that other more-experienced in-house attorneys expect.  That is a win-win for you because you get a sharp, adaptable candidate who will not be as big an expense to your department’s bottom line.
  • One company that we work with refers to a lawyer’s “runway”- how long will it take an attorney to garner speed and once they have achieved the optimum performance- what are they capable of achieving. Is the on-boarding and training a “good” return on investment?

Assessing for Resiliency

Finally, the last step in your process to fill legal gaps is to strategize for the future.  You may have identified a need now, and you may currently be weighing the pros and cons of potential vs. past performance.  Yet, do not forget that you want your department ready for the next big change or the next technological advancement in the legal field.

That means that you need to start looking at the horizon to see what changes are in the distance.  When you take time for that kind of reflection and planning, you take out some guesswork, and you minimize surprises.  The end result?  Your organization is ready to handle changes with agility, and will be resilient if you are hit with a surprise or two.

In sum, your role as General Counsel is not only to guide and advise in present matters.  Rather, you also need to protect your organization from potential speed bumps that may come in the future.  So, following some of the steps above to (i) assess your legal gaps, (ii) actively work to fill them, and (iii) look ahead to competencies you might need in the future, will ensure that you and your organization are poised for future success.  Good luck!