A different dynamic: managing an expanded legal team

If you’ve been catapulted from the safety of a legal silo into the realm of department management, you’ll know that managing an in-house legal team can be a huge learning curve. But what if your department (and your remit) suddenly get a lot bigger?

Victor Topadze became group legal director at Russian classifieds business Avito in 2012. He saw his team grow from a four-person outfit to a 15-strong department in only two years, as the company transformed from the start-up it was in 2009 to the multibillion dollar company it is today. It was tough, he says, because of the speed of the changes in the business. ‘It’s not like anyone says “here’s a year to try and build a team.” Products and new functionality were added virtually every week, so it was a very demanding professional environment.’ What had previously been largely a generalist group had to be structured into teams of specialists focused on corporate and M&A, core business, contractual work and compliance issues. On top of masterminding the new structure, Topadze also now had to field the challenges thrown up by cross-functional projects, which created overlaps and grey areas of responsibility.

Marcus Lee has also seen a major shift in his department’s dynamic. In the five years that he has been general counsel at British television network Channel 5, his team has more than doubled in size, mainly due to an increase in responsibilities. When it comes to planning a new structure in the face of such expansion, he says, ‘you should have in the back of your mind how it would ideally look if you were designing it from scratch. Sometimes you inherit teams that have a particular history, but you have to constantly reassess whether those structures are still appropriate and relevant for the current business.’ Like Topadze, he advocates grouping team members according to their responsibilities. But this needn’t mean creating siloes. Channel 5 has moved some non-legal (but closely-connected) functions into the legal team, which has paid dividends in terms of efficiency. ‘We had a look at a couple of the process documents that were being created regularly by different parts of the business, and it was possible for me to see if there were any duplicated tasks there. I could also see if there were any process documents or update summaries that it might be useful for another part of the business to see. So you’re not increasing workload for anyone, but you are sharing knowledge and communicating a lot better,’ he says.

A more complex structure necessitates a different approach than you might be used to in a compact department, as Topadze discovered. ‘When you manage a smaller team, you can have more of a personal approach. When you have two or three direct reports, you know how to work best with them; you have more control and they have more guidelines.’ But with a larger group, each person must assume more responsibility, necessitating ‘a reporting line where you rely on a small number of leads who can deal in specific areas.’

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’

The daily task of allocating time between team management activities and your own personal workload can be a challenge, with the constant danger of getting caught in the weeds of a complex project and neglecting the team, or vice versa. For Russian-headquartered lighting manufacturer Lighting Technologies’ chief legal officer Uliana Tikhonova, the secret is in keeping the team as small as possible. She has seen her reports grow from two people to 12, and then go back down to nine. She instinctively dislikes an unwieldy team (which she defines as larger than 10 reports) for the very reason that it interferes with legal work. ‘It’s very important to keep doing some legal jobs, even if you are a senior executive,’ she explains. ‘That job is for my professional soul – because I chose to be a lawyer, not just a manager, in the first place.’ Keeping in touch with the legal community and contacts outside the business and staying abreast of legal developments also compete for a manager’s attention. She says her time is split 30/70 between team and legal activities.

Victor Topadze also acknowledges the toll team management takes on his own workload, but holds the view that if the boss does too much, the structure will collapse. He used to split his time 70/30 between legal and managerial work, but now that balance has reversed. Yet this is always contingent on the relative urgency of the task at hand, and he argues that to consistently prioritise one area over another is wrong. The business can heap projects and pressure on the GC’s head at any moment, so flexibility is of the essence.

Keep talking

A crucial factor in the successful supervision of an expanded department is communication. It is important to tailor exchanges to the individual team member’s skillset and, of course, be fully cognisant of the fact that each is an expert in their own right, whether legally-trained or not.

The concept of fitting the message to the recipient is one that is familiar to an East Africa-based legal head at a bank. He saw his remit (co-led with a colleague) leap to 14 people based multijurisdictionally. The London-trained former transactional lawyer made the transition from running a team of two or three people of equal seniority, with few real managerial duties beyond the administrative, to being fully entrenched in people management. The geographical spread has added an additional layer of complexity: ‘Now I’m dealing with different cultures, different legal regulatory landscapes. It’s just about trying to get your head around the fact that people have different expectations in different parts of the continent.’ His solution has been to adopt a very personal approach, and to keep this up beyond the recruitment phase of the expansion. ‘I have made the effort to try and get to know each one of these people. I try and get out to each of the other regions once a quarter at least, because I think sitting down face-to-face is sometimes an easier way of doing things.’

Building time into the schedule for face-to-face contact can be a struggle, and Marcus Lee believes that adopting a fairly formalised approach works best. Diarising regular meetings means that they don’t get overlooked: ‘Everyone gets into a rhythm of working in that way and you don’t let it slip.’ But there should be time for ad hoc interaction as well: ‘My door is always open and people can come and raise anything specific with me,’ he says. Lee holds a departmental meeting every other week to discuss the top three projects each report is working on – leaving them to choose what is most interesting, or the areas on which they would like input from the wider team. During the corresponding alternate weeks, he holds a meeting where the group runs through the full slate of work, discussing the bare bones of each matter. ‘We’ve found that that encourages the right balance between control and consistency on the one hand, and delegation on the other.’ Similarly, Topadze contends that a formalised approach to communication is necessary in a larger team to ensure that everyone is up-to-speed about what’s going on, not only in the department itself, but in the company.

At Lighting Technologies, however, Uliana Tikhonova tries to avoid formal meetings altogether, preferring informal one-to-ones which, she believes, often uncover big problems that might go unnoticed in a larger departmental gathering. When issues arise, she says, picking up the phone is more efficient, and makes the company more agile. Inevitably, however, a larger team has meant some formality in communication, whereas ‘a smaller department is like a family, or communication with friends,’ she says.

Under the microscope

Tikhonova eschews micromanagement, describing herself as a democratic, even laissez-faire manager. Her philosophy is to allow team members the latitude to follow their own initiative, stepping in only to provide general guidance, or when ideas are inconsistent with company policy, or inappropriate. ‘I want my team members to work by themselves rather than mechanically fulfil legal tasks. I don’t like to control everything and lecture on technical work – I like them to be creative and intelligent.’ This enables her to focus on the big picture, and come up with ideas that help the company strategically.

Most GCs we spoke to agreed that micromanagement was an unhelpful approach to running a medium-to-large team. But it can be a challenge to let go of the details, particularly at the start of an in-house management career. The East Africa-based lawyer is the beneficiary of a leadership training programme, where his feedback has often focused on honing that big picture outlook. ‘One of the observations has been: less detail please, and think about the strategic, managerial and commercial side of things. But I’m now learning to step back a bit more and take a bird’s eye view of things.’


Roberto Andrade Martinez has had a slightly different experience. Now GC at pharmacy chain Farmacias del Ahorro in Mexico, he spent over a decade as legal director of Telefónica Móviles, where he oversaw the growth of the legal department from three or four to 18 reports, structured into specialist teams. His strategy was to recruit junior lawyers with two or three years of experience, and focus on fully developing them into future legal managers. In the short term, this necessitated a degree of micromanagement, he recalls. ‘When you start growing the team, it’s like being a fireman: there are fires everywhere. You have to ask them what they are doing, follow up all of their issues, accompany them to meetings, and you have to be constantly giving feedback to everyone.’ However, this was a temporary stage, and after a period Martinez was able to step back and spend less and less time on day-to-day management. Overall, he says, a big picture approach is best, in allowing new recruits some breathing space to develop their own professional style. However, he warns, ‘you can’t let someone take full responsibility just because you want to empower them. Helping is not [the same as] micromanagement. The hard part is determining which matters are the important ones, and which are the ones that, if you get involved too much, that person will feel that you don’t trust them.’

So what should prompt a manager to swap the big picture hat for the minutiae microscope? Not the size of the matter, says Martinez, who stresses that sometimes a smaller issue might necessitate a closer look if it’s critical for the organisation. Topadze defines a red flag as a matter of significant business exposure, whether that be a risk or an opportunity. Lee adds company reputational matters to the list, and points out that as a manager grows in experience they develop an instinct about when (and when not) to dive in. ‘You start off wanting more and more information from your team, but as you gain that experience and the confidence of knowing what that trigger is, you’re more able to make a call,’ he says.

Trust, support and progression

Importantly, the manager must be able to rely on individual team members to raise the alarm themselves; to know what they don’t know and spot when they need an experienced hand to step in. For Topadze, smart recruitment is key to building a team you can be comfortable delegating to. Likewise, when expanding his team, the East Africa-based lawyer placed great emphasis on the personality and team skills of his hires rather than star quality, explaining that ‘you can build on the skillset, you can give them exposure. But if their character is not an easy one, not much can really happen.’

Once that group is in place, the GC can delegate with confidence, which in turn is empowering for individuals and their personal development – with the boss as backbone. And when things go wrong, Martinez explains, the manager is there to scaffold and not to apportion blame. ‘I say, “if you have a concern, tell me. And if you made a mistake, please tell me. We can manage the mistake, but don’t make a small thing bigger because you didn’t tell me.” Sometimes we can have a laugh about it. But you cannot get mad: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t make mistakes.’ Trust has been a fundamental tenet of Martinez’s management style. ‘If you don’t trust them, the one making a mistake is you. And it’s a natural thing, not like a process. You can’t force it. It’s harder if you don’t know them, but in three or four months you get to know their abilities and the areas in which they are strong.’

The East Africa-based banking lawyer agrees that putting people first is vital and that nothing creates a dysfunctional legal department more than dissatisfied members. When dealing with difficult situations, he says, a good network of peers and contacts at other organisations – be they law firms, regulators, or other companies – can be an invaluable source of advice.

Providing a structured career path for in-house lawyers can be a challenge, but Martinez is firm in his belief that internal promotion is the key to a motivated and solid team that knows the business well. ‘Every time you have a new job opportunity in your legal team, you have to be prepared to fill that with somebody on your team. When a position opens up in legal and you go to the outside market and hire somebody new, it’s going to be heartbreaking for all the team.’

To build or not to build?

Uliana Tikhonova recommends exercising caution when it comes to growth: ‘Don’t hurry to expand your department. Try to find resources in your current team, reform your legal practices and policies, and employ new management methods. Only when you have established the effective legal processes and still feel that you do not have enough people should you go to HR,’ she advises. But Victor Topadze has found the secret to be in thorough planning and going in with a realistic idea of what the future could bring. ‘Try to look not to tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow. In a fast-growing business, it’s better to overestimate your needs and workload than to underestimate. When I was changing our office, there was a questionnaire asking how many people I estimated we would need in one and a half years’ time, and it turned out we needed twice as many as I thought.’

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But our GCs agreed that a clear picture of what you want your department to look and feel like and a considered strategy for interacting with its members are essential for all those facing a rapidly up-sizing team.