How to Effectively Structure Your Legal Team

Structure Your Legal Team
Judge Dan Hinde

You are best positioned as a chief legal officer or general counsel when you have multiple resources reporting to you in any business environment. However, staffing and organizing your team in a way that best serves the needs of your legal department and your business, while also allowing opportunities for growth and development amongst the staff and team members, can be challenging. Key steps to build a team that aligns with the needs of your business include:

Step 1: Evaluate Your Current Team

When building or evaluating your team for its ability to cover the needs of your organization, start by taking the company’s organization chart and mapping that to your own department. You want to make sure that your legal department can meet the needs of your organization and that coverage is built around what the organization is actually doing. Identify gaps where you will either need to hire or transition existing talent to cover and focus.



Sometimes you will want to hire for certain specialties—and sometimes it’s nearly impossible to avoid that. For example, when you are a product manufacturer, having an IP lawyer is incredibly valuable. But in filling those roles, try to find people who are excited by or willing to engage with other aspects of practice outside of their specialty.

Keep in mind that most lawyers have the capacity to learn anything. If you can differentiate between primary talent and capacity for secondary coverage, that will go a long way to making sure your department grows at an appropriate rate.

Step 2: Lean on Your Seconds in Command

The structure that best supports your organization will likely include appointing a few deputy general counsel (DGC) to lead specific functions within the team. Nearly every DGC eventually wants to be a GC, and while it is not your primary obligation to make sure that career growth happens, there are opportunities (even in flat organizations) to give people a bit more exposure and authority and experience. Help set them up for success by:


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Including your DGCs in all relevant communications. As your internal and external business partners identify potential issues, you want your front-line DGC to be able to address them. Having your DGCs on the communications indicates to your outside counsel and internal stakeholders that your DGC is central to getting the work done and can be spoken to directly.

Making sure your DGCs are interacting and reporting with the rest of your department. When you have team meetings, try having a different DGC each week manage and run the meeting while you participate. This gives them a chance to show authority and gives you a chance to observe their leadership capabilities.

Creating cross-issue teams. Have your DGCs work together on projects in their expertise and in adjacent subjects—or even in areas completely outside their box. It increases their experience, fosters collaboration and keeps people interested. Make sure the area expert leads the project.

Putting DGCs in charge of training. If your DGCs handle the broad scope training inside your organization for their areas of expertise, others will gain familiarity with the DGC and see them as an authority. Your goal through the trainings should be for your business to know where to turn should an issue arise.


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Having them develop a relationship with outside counsel. Ensure that all members of your team use outside counsel, not just as a stop gap or service provider but as an educational tool.

Invite them to attend business-facing meetings in their expertise. It will not only save you time of having to report back what is needed, but it will also expose them to appropriate stakeholders and position them as the subject-matter experts. Their attendance at meetings will also help build enterprise value and understanding in your legal team, which will help them perform better.

Step 3: Think About the Future

While it is not uncommon for a GC to stick around for many years, over time, your skill set may outgrow the needs of your organization. You will want to leave a strong, principled, and structured legal team that can continue your legacy of contribution to the organization. Have a succession plan in mind and prepare your people accordingly. Understand if you were to leave, you need to have talent in-house that is prepared to have legitimate consideration from your organization. Make sure you are giving your DGCs enough responsibility, scope and access to the business to ensure continuity.

If you are giving your DGCs responsibility and exposure, provide real-time feedback whenever possible. Letting them know where they are excelling and where there is room for growth will set them up to eventually ascend into the GC role. Be mindful to allow people the opportunity to fix their errors and work with them to find appropriate solutions, as opposed to fully pushing them aside or letting them flounder trying to repair a mistake. Companies generally have low levels of tolerance for mistakes by the legal department, so your office must be the place where those conversations can be had in good faith.

Keep your eye on the progress by taking care of the department in the present and opening doors for others to step through in the future. Given the responsibility and a strong structure, your DGCs will have the chance to show you whether they are a legitimate candidate to serve as your successor and take the GC seat.

Chris Williams

As a director in Major Lindsey & Africa's In-House Counsel Recruiting and Board Services teams in Boston, Christopher Williams assists public and private corporations, nonprofits, government agencies and higher education institutions with identifying exceptional legal and compliance professionals and board directors to build or enhance their teams.

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