The 7 Secrets to Keeping Legal Talent Engaged

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Lawyers are people too, you know.

It’s a simple premise that yields big results.

In a recent conversation with a few of our Senior Advisors, I was struck by the humanity of Helen Pudlin’s approach to managing and developing legal talent.  Having worked with her as a client before she joined the BarkerGilmore team, I knew Helen was recognized in the workplace for the way she treated others as individuals and ensured they were operating at their best and highest use.

Here are a few of Helen’s secrets for motivating and bringing legal talent to peak performance levels.

1. Be relentless about being kind.

My role model for this practice was our CEO. When I was at PNC, there were over 55,000 employees. Our CEO spent time walking around, visiting our markets, and dropping into employees’ offices and engaging them in hallways to find out how they were doing. The conversations included open-ended questions such as, “How was your weekend?” or, “How is your family?” And he listened to their responses. One of the things that made a big impact on me personally was when my mother broke her hip and the CEO sent flowers to her in the hospital. I learned from his behavior and tried to practice this type of kindness with my own staff.

2. Value employees for more than their legal skills and professional accomplishments.

A good manager acknowledges that an employee has achieved a successful outcome, made a significant contribution to a corporate or department goal, or developed exceptional expertise. It is important to give people real-time feedback and make them feel respected and valued for their professional contributions. It is equally important to let them know that you care about them as individuals, that you are sensitive to personal issues in their lives, and that you appreciate and will try to accommodate their needs in the day-to-day work schedule. It’s often the small things that make people feel valued and motivated. This awareness is instinctive for some managers, and if it's not instinctive to you, with a little effort, it can become a learned behavior.

3. Listen to what they need and want.

Find out what work your lawyers would like to do more or less of and how they think they could have a bigger impact on the legal department or the company in the future. Get their thoughts on what opportunities would help them develop in their careers or make a greater contribution. You might use this information to form a development plan that either you or the managers of the department oversee. After you have asked your legal team these questions, you should follow up on their responses in their periodic performance reviews.

4. Help them stretch.

Offer your lawyers new projects that are meaningful, draw on different skills, and give them visibility. Although most lawyers are risk averse, encourage them to tackle projects that will develop and stretch their skills. Target employees to whom you can offer these projects or ask for volunteers. Be prepared to provide adequate support if they don’t have all the necessary skills for the project. Publicize success stories about employees who took on new projects and stretch assignments. And look for opportunities for your lawyers to make presentations to the whole legal department, senior management, the Board or Board committees, and other stakeholders.

5. Provide a wide variety of experience.

I assigned lawyers to the role of chief practice counsel or chief business or function counsel and made sure they served as counsel to key business and function committees. I asked lawyers to lead or serve on cross-functional teams and projects inside and outside the legal department. I made lawyers members of, or preferably counsel to, key enterprise committees, including risk, credit, and disclosure. Additional developmental and career building opportunities worth considering include assigning, for a period of time, high potential lawyers to work with the General Counsel on special projects or work outside the department in a business unit or other functional area or on an enterprise project. The assignments outside the legal department often required educating business colleagues on the value to the company of assigning lawyers to these roles, but the value was quickly apparent and well received. The lawyers were often energized by these various roles, and it gave them the opportunity to build relationships, expand their skills, and gain increased visibility and a broader perspective on the company.

6. Serve them as coach and mentor.

It is important to provide mentorship and coaching to enhance performance, development, and engagement. Many companies have mentorship programs where employees are assigned mentors inside or outside their department and, in addition, offer coaching to high potential employees, often providing coaches from outside the company. I also viewed an important part of my job - and the jobs of lawyers in leadership positions - to include informal mentoring as well as coaching our lawyers on areas for improvement and development so that they could reach their fullest potential.

7. Provide other developmental opportunities.

Consider offering lawyers training in communications, public speaking, and project management, as well as courses in finance to enhance their financial literacy. Remember that a good lawyer does not always make a good manager; consider offering management training to new managers. This training can be done inside or outside the company. I also suggest encouraging and supporting participation in industry and professional groups, and enabling the lawyers to do philanthropic work outside of the company, if that is of interest. All of this helps to broaden the lawyers and demonstrates that you care about their development which benefits both them and the company.

Contact Helen Pudlin for Advising Services for Legal Counsel
To learn more about how we can help you tackle your professional goals with our advisory services for in-house counsel, please contact Helen today. Our consultants have decades of experience in advising legal and compliance executives.

Topics: Interview   |   Legal

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