Insights

How to Build a Legal Team: Tried and Tested Truths

December 6, 2022

This article features insights from one of our sessions from our exclusive in-house lawyer community, where we spoke with identity security provider Onfido. To join the Watering Hole community, head here.

Behind every great business, is a stellar legal department. Driven to protect, advance, and evolve the business, legal teams are often the fuel that pushes challenging projects forward. However, assembling a legal department is not an easy task. From securing niche expertise to retaining an in-demand hire, developing a team comes with a long to-do list. What’s more, if you’re developing a team from the idea to exit stage, you’ll undergo a series of changes that will impact your needs, your team structure, and the approach required to scale the business.

In this article, we discuss how to build a legal team, from humble beginnings to fully-fledged global enterprises. Let’s start…

Humble beginnings…

In Onfido’s own words, “you can’t go from zero to one hundred”. And, as a business that has scaled from 3 members of staff in 2013, to 650 in 2022, it’s expressed from first-hand experience. So what should you be looking for in the early days of building your legal function?

In the startup/scaleup model, the needs of your business will be vast, evolving, and ever-changing. To add to that, budget will likely be sparse, meaning your legal team will need to achieve a lot, with a little. With that in mind, you’ll need to cultivate an agile team that can operate on a broad range of legal matters.

Not only that, but you’ll need to build the relationship between your fledgling legal team, and the remaining members of the company, who may not be used to the guidance that legal teams provide. As a result, it’s key that you get buy-in from the business early on. Take the time to truly understand the goals of the business; what is it trying to achieve today? And what are its ambitions for the future? How can you align yourself to meet those goals and remove blockers that impede progress?

Here it can be particularly helpful to hone in on “low-hanging fruit” that will propel the business forward. In doing so, you’ll convey to the business early doors that you’re an asset that drives progress.

Communication is key

It’s crucial to set foundations early on that breed trust and accountability while opening the lines of communication. Depending on the business, setting up an SLA (service level agreement) that defines response times can help offer assurance to the wider business, while allowing you to define expectations.

It similarly helps to meet frequently to discuss OKRs (objectives and key results), and to ensure legal efforts are aligned with the most critical priorities for the business. The legal function will have to ensure it balances legal risk with supporting the internal clients of the business.

Focus on the strategy

The strategy of the business and the strategy of the legal function should go hand-in-hand. And yet, it can happen at times when the two are at odds. It’s crucial that legal has a keen understanding of the broader business strategy, and is kept in the loop as the strategy evolves. Not only will this allow legal to work proactively, but it will also inform hiring as the business grows.

Certain goals might require more specialist knowledge in one area of legal expertise, or perhaps, a legal hire in an entirely new country altogether. By remaining closely involved in the overall future strategy, you can make informed decisions as to how to build and structure your team.

Evolution of a team

As the business scales, so too will your team. However, it won’t just be headcount that you’ll need to think of. In the early days, your business will rely on agility and broad knowledge. As it evolves, however, you may need to increase the rigidity of roles, allowing niche expertise to formalise within your legal team. You’ll notice formalised patterns beginning to fall into place as the business grows, and it’s important you grow and evolve your team to align with these patterns. While legal tech can help you a bit of the way here, there will come a time when you need to strategically think about your hiring strategy.

Understanding when to hire, and when to hold, can be tricky. In Onfido’s own words, “if you hire too late, or too few, you’re in a constant cycle of reactivity. If you hire too early or too many, then people feel there’s no work, no career path, and very little motivation.”

Here, it helps to have overspill support, whether that’s outside counsel via a law firm, or an external legal partner to help you scale a surge in demand. At Stephenson Law, our Flamingo Subscription is designed with just this scenario in mind. At a transparent price, we equip scaling businesses with a bolt-on legal team that can rise to meet demand across a broad variety of legal issues. Whether you’re seeking parental cover or anticipating a big project in need of legal advice, we’ve got you covered.

Structuring your legal team

In the early days, your legal team will likely embrace a collaborative approach, pitching in to support wherever is needed. As the business scales, however, you’ll need to solidify the structure of your team and empower solicitors with clearly defined areas of ownership.

Not only will this ensure the business works efficiently as it grows, but it will also empower your team with a sense of autonomy. This approach also encourages solicitors to become an expert in the area of the business they support. This allows them to build relationships with the teams they support, spend time with the customers they work with, and grow familiar with the most common tasks that arise in their region.

How you segment your legal team will be up to you. Perhaps you’ll focus on geographic regions, perhaps you’ll focus on areas of the business, or perhaps you’ll focus on silos of legal expertise. Whatever it is, try to think about where the business needs to go, and what structure will allow for a sharp focus towards the end goal.

Retaining legal professionals

Building a kick-ass team goes far beyond the hiring stage. Once you’ve assembled your experts, it’s crucial you have a strategy in place to retain each and every team member. In fact, replacing someone is estimated to cost approximately 33% of an employee’s annual salary. Losing a team member also costs the business far more than finances, from a loss of knowledge and team morale to a loss of resources and training time.

Take the time to understand what makes legal professionals tick; the needs of your general counsel and senior solicitors will likely be vastly different to that of your juniors, and it's important you invest time into ensuring they’re in it for the long haul. Are there clear roadmaps for career progression? Are your solicitors empowered to make an impact within the business? What kind of support would juniors appreciate, versus the needs of senior members within the team? How is legal work doled out? Is there training available? Does your company culture align with the values of your solicitors? Or is there a bit of work to be done to give your team purpose?

By asking the right questions, you can not just build a dream team… you can build a dream team that lasts.

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