More than money

You’ve built up your legal team but how do you incentivise them to stay? GC’s Catherine Wycherley speaks to general counsel around the globe to find out how they keep their teams together.

There’s an oft-quoted remark by Theodore Roosevelt saying, “Appraisals are where you get together with your team leader and agree what an outstanding member of the team you are, how much your contribution has been valued, what massive potential you have and, in recognition of all this, would you mind having your salary halved?”

Nowadays, most managers recognise that getting the most out of your team is about much more than wielding the bottom-line stick. Incentivising staff is often high up on the priorities list – and it’s about more than forking out for a huge salary. In the last issue of GC we looked at the work of Clayton Christensen. In his book How Will You Measure Your Life? Christensen draws on the research of Frederick Herzberg, who counts compensation among the “hygiene factors” that make a job bearable. But this is not the same as providing motivation, says Herzberg – that’s about the opportunity to grow, to be recognised, to contribute.

In-house teams are growing, of course. So how can GCs build in motivators like career progression, to make sure their teams are happy – and inclined to stick around?

Arijit Chakraborty, general counsel of Zurich’s Global Life and General Insurance businesses in Singapore, cedes that salary is not to be ignored when it comes to talent retention. He carefully gathers data on the incentives offered by rival companies, to make sure that his team is offered a competitive package. “Every year when we look at our salary increments and bonus, I always work closely with HR to get the relevant market intelligence so that they are properly benchmarked. That means you have to get the right job description, and you need to do the proper alignment,” he says.

But getting ahead in the salary stakes might not possible for every company. There are other methods that don’t cost money.

Keeping it interesting

Expanding the scope and breadth of the work is one way to engage team members, and if the projects in one area become repetitive, then switch. Arijit regularly revolves the duties of his in-house team, keeping individuals’ interests and goals in mind. “I often ask them if there’s any particular area of legal or compliance or regulatory work that interests them, and then I have a conversation with the team so that we can do a rotation,” he says, “so that people feel engaged and can move on from one interesting assignment to another.”

The general counsel of Colorado-based satellite television provider DISH Network Corporation, Stanton Dodge, agrees and adds that rotation can also help solidify team members’ goals. “To the extent that someone knows what they want to do, we try to put them in a place to do that. But if they really don’t know what they want to do, we will keep rotating them until they find something,” he explains.

You can’t support your team members to achieve their ambitions if you don’t know what those ambitions are. At leading Latin American investment bank BTG Pactual, US-based international general counsel Jill Wallach discusses what opportunities team members’ envision for themselves at an annual assessment meeting which takes place at the year-end. Zurich also formalises this process with staff completing an “individual development plan” at the beginning of the year, setting out their objectives and goals. Managers then use this as a blueprint for accommodating that person’s aspirations. “We try to hone the skillset,” Arijit says. “For example, if someone is at the managerial level and wants to gain more insights in leadership qualities, then we have internal and also external training programmes to support that.”

Getting perspective

Employees need to realise where they are right now, of course. All the GCs we spoke to agreed that feedback was vital for team members to feel that they are making headway. Arijit cautions against restricting this to a yearly appraisal, and gives his perspective on performance after each assignment or deliverable. This feedback extends beyond technical prowess and addresses how that individual has managed stakeholders in the project – an area which can often throw up issues even if the legal work or advice is perfect.

Assessment can be a periodic process, or it can be informal and ongoing, but it mustn’t be forgotten, says Hong Kong-based Ben Hamilton, head of legal Asia for Australian-headquartered bank ANZ. He learnt through his own review process about the importance of setting appointments for feeding back to staff. “It was actually something that’s come out of some 360 reviews that I’ve had done on myself. In talking to my team and talking to the management of the bank, it is really important for people to feel that their immediate boss and people further up the chain are interested in their career and career development,” he discloses. “To do that, you have to be proactive around diarising and actually making time for those discussions,” he adds. “I think you do actually have to have a formalised discussion around that.”

It goes without saying that a second pair of eyes on a project will help an in-house lawyer to grow their skillset and Stanton Dodge believes that mentoring – whether through formal approval or an organic process of answering questions as they come up – is key to encouraging development. It’s an opportunity for the management too, to get a sense of who is ready for the next challenge. But as well as identifying the next generation of leaders, it’s a chance to provide pastoral care for those who might be having second thoughts about their role. “It’s a very steep learning curve and it can be frightening. It certainly was for me,” Stanton admits. “So I spend a lot of time with our new lawyers just out of law school, to try and help guide them through the initial year or two. I try to help them understand that it’s something that we’ve all been through and you need to really stick with it, because ultimately at the end of those two years, you’ll be surprised at what you’ve learned.”

When it comes to formal training, the general counsel we spoke to were split about the amount of handholding a lawyer ought to get at the outset. At BTG Pactual, Jill Wallach believes in promoting a leadership candidate first, and then asking questions about what training they need later. “We’re a little bit entrepreneurial,” she explains. “We expect that person to decide how they roll, and we empower them to do that. So for example, if they feel like there are certain areas that they need to get up to speed in, we would have legal experts available to assist them.”

Stanton also approves of entrepreneurialism and ownership of one’s own destiny. But he sees training as a reward for excellence, as well as a development tool. “The University of Colorado Law School just ran a great programme on best practices for the in-house environment that featured several prominent current and former general counsels,” he recounts. “We handpicked three of our rising star lawyers and sent them to that. It was one way that we showed them appreciation, that we thought they were doing a great job, and that we thought they had a lot of potential as future leaders in our organisation.”

Business visibility

On top of recognition within the team, many general counsel highlight the importance of allowing team members to make their mark on the upper echelons of the business – to instil the confidence that their work is contributing to company strategy. Arijit is a member of Zurich’s executive management committee in Singapore, and makes a point of inviting key mid-level or junior in-housers to make presentations at committee meetings on legal and regulatory topics.

Ben Hamilton has a similar idea at ANZ. “Our lawyers get access to group management on a much more regular basis than even their colleagues in Australia do. For example, they brief and accompany board members to regulator visits and are involved in strategic reviews and new product development.” A little love from the CEO goes a long way, according to Ben. “One of my team got a personal ‘thank you’ note from the CEO of International & Institutional Banking for the work she did on the Myanmar licence application,” he says, adding that, “I think I was even more chuffed than she was!”

“Assessment can be a periodic process, or it can be informal and ongoing, but it mustn’t be forgotten. ”

Back at Zurich, Arijit is proactive in soliciting the attentions of the CEO, requesting legal and compliance to be included in company-wide congratulations to boost team members’ morale. “They feel they are a part of the deal, part of the company, making a difference,” he contends. This is the thinking behind the Zurich Excellence Award, he continues. It’s based on a nomination from the wider business in recognition of when a team member has gone beyond their role and made an exemplary contribution to the business. The executive committee conducts a selection process, and the award – a small trophy or certificate and premium movie tickets, for example – is made in a quarterly meeting. “Others can aspire to be the next recipient,” Arijit says.

Another mechanism for delivering visibility in the business is the internal secondment. It carries with it the risk that the loaned employee might enjoy their new environment so much that they never return – but it could pay-off for the organisation as a whole. And after all, the ethos behind many lawyers’ decision to go in-house is to widen their skillset.

The fabric of the team

Building motivators into the day-to-day life of in-house lawyers is about more than initiatives, however. The very fabric of the team, its structure, can impact on the quality of the experience. Many legal teams employ a flatter structure than other corporate departments. Received wisdom reports that a flat hierarchy impedes promotion, as those lower down the pecking order wait longer for vacant positions. Arijit manages a team of 10 in a joint legal and compliance team. Like most teams run by the GCs we spoke to, it has relatively few layers to it, although Arijit believes in the importance of a certain degree of structure. “If you have more of a flat structure then it may take you a number of years to go to the next level. If you have three or four layers, after a year or two you can jump one level and you can see potential in terms of promotion, it is reflected in your revised salary and your bonus structure, so I think that keeps people engaged,” he says.

Somewhat atypically for an investment bank, Jill Wallach also presides over a flat-ish team. She describes her structure as a “hybrid” – a nod to the practical benefits of some structure, but without the narrow roles often seen in highly structured outfits. “In large investment banks everyone has their own box, so they are very narrowly tailored. Here, we do have somewhat of a speciality but we also provide people with more flexibility as to their platform,” she explains. This has enabled a certain amount of organic growth, and the opportunity for staff to move to different areas within the team. She gives the example of a junior compliance worker in Brazil who wanted to chance his arm at a role in the US-based asset management compliance team. He was given that opportunity and it paid off, despite the position being very different to his previous skillset. BTG Pactual has been in growth mode for the past five years, and so being staffed leanly allows team members to grow their remit as the business itself expands. “It’s almost organically allowing people to expand their roles within the firm,” says Jill Wallach. “And if they need assistance with junior folks, they grow their own team as well.”

So far so good for a leaner team. But in an operation where there are several people with a similar focus due to the work volume, says Arijit, a hierarchy might be necessary.

Arguably, totally flat structure just might not be practical. Any team must have leaders to carry the can and make decisions, right? Ben Hamilton at ANZ thinks so. “In certain situations it may not be appropriate for junior people to deal with very senior people,” says Ben. “Sometimes a more junior lawyer may not feel comfortable delivering a difficult message to senior people – notwithstanding that lawyer’s ability to answer correctly or give the right guidance on a topic. This will hopefully develop over time,” he adds, “particularly where that lawyer deals with the same stakeholder on a regular basis.” But senior staff need to be in place to help develop less experienced staff, Ben says. “The senior lawyer should take that role initially and help the more junior lawyer build confidence and trust, both in themselves and with the stakeholder.”

On the other hand, says Arijit, a flatter structure can be great for specialists of similar seniority to communicate with each other, without the additional layer of a go-between. If the roles are sufficiently delineated in terms of practice area, he argues, then this facilitates a flat structure much better.

And not everybody wants to aim for the top of the pyramid, as Ben at ANZ (where the structure is very flat) points out. He gives the example of a colleague who runs a team of three senior specialists, each with at least 10 years’ experience under their belts, who are happy in their position in the chain. “They’re subject matter experts, they do their job very well, they’re highly respected, get great feedback from the business and they really enjoy what they do,” he says.

Whether flat or hierarchical, what’s in place has to fit in with the wider business. Says Ben: “I was sitting here in the office I share with our head of compliance, and the global chief risk officer who’s up from Melbourne just walked in and said hello to us both. We sat here and we talked for a while about various things. That sort of open door thing is part of the culture of the bank, and if we were to have a hierarchical structure, it just wouldn’t work here. It wouldn’t sit right.”

A cultural fit

Culture is a key differentiator between a legal department able to retain talent and one that is not, believes Ben, who cites the collegial working environment within his own team. But structure can influence that culture. For Stanton Dodge at DISH Network, culture is king, and this is profoundly influenced by the architecture of the company, which began life as a start-up in 1980. “It’s probably flatter than most,” says Stanton, “and that goes for our company in general.” The legal team comprises 30 attorneys, two senior vice presidents, a group of vice presidents responsible for discrete areas, then directors, then mid-level, and finally juniors, who might be straight out of law school. There’s hierarchy, acknowledges Stanton, “but for a 14 billion dollar gross revenue company, that’s still pretty lean and flat.”

This allows for employees to be given a lot of responsibility right off the bat – a culture that has been in place since he joined himself, 18 years ago. “Everything I worked on, I owned. And it wasn’t just that I was helping on a little piece here or there; I owned entire deals as a transactional lawyer,” he says. Stanton strongly equates a flat structure with entrepreneurialism. He recalls his early days at the company: “All we did was put out fires all day long and I loved it. I thought it was very fun, I learned a tonne, I was drinking from the fire hose, and I couldn’t have imagined a better, more vibrant environment for me to start my career.”

But such a workplace is not for everyone, he concedes, and there are lawyers who crave the additional support that more hierarchy can bring. “We recently had a junior attorney who decided to leave us to work at a law firm because they provided more structure, more handholding – and she thought that type of environment was a better fit for her,” he admits.

“The GC must take stock of their own habitat, in order to hire people who will flourish within it.”

Nevertheless, Ben Hamilton’s money is firmly on a flatter structure when it comes to creating an attractive culture. He celebrates the lack of hierarchy in his team, and claims it has fostered a fun and informal atmosphere. “People get on really well, there’s a lot of joking, a lot of irreverence at one another’s expense – which I really like,” he says. “And it’s not stuffy, it’s not a stiff shirt-type arrangement.”

It’s also not everyone’s cup of tea, however. ANZ is an Australian bank and although the “relaxed Australian” is a stereotype, Ben does not dispel this image. “It may well be that people from other working cultures, perhaps those more used to a more formal American-style system may feel less comfortable in that sort of environment. So you do have to play to your audience as well.”

There’s no one size fits all, and it’s crucial for general counsel to fully understand the ambience of their own department, and whether its members are engaged. Zurich in Singapore has a regular “temperature check” survey that all employees must complete on an anonymous basis. “They have a simple question which asks: how do you feel about working for Zurich? And then you have smileys. Very happy faces, happy faces, sad faces,” Arijit Chakraborty describes.


Stanton agrees that the GC must take stock of their own habitat, in order to hire people who will flourish within it. In a sense, it’s a closed circle: structure can impact culture, which in turn encourages hires with a particular mindset. But until you fully understand the subtleties of the office dynamic, mistakes can be made which impact everyone’s morale – and can be costly if significant time has been spent training someone who soon departs. DISH has learned from such experiences, says Stanton. “One time we had a lawyer who hired a paralegal saying, ‘well, I knew they wouldn’t get along with the rest of the team, but I just hired them anyway.’ And that was a really bad idea. This person didn’t get on with the support staff, and ultimately they ended up leaving.” How has he avoided repeating past mistakes? It’s down to listening, says Stanton. “We include our support staff in the interview process now – because if one of our key administrative assistants said they didn’t like that person, it could be a potential problem. After all, they’re the folks that make the trains run on time.”

Self-awareness extends to one’s own leadership style too, says Ben Hamilton, who advocates playing to your own strengths. “Trying to be a gregarious and embracing character when you’re not that person just comes off poorly,” he says.

Moving out

Perhaps honesty is the best policy – about who you are, and what opportunities you can provide for staff. Of course, the sky is not always the limit when it comes to realising an employee’s career plans. If the opportunities are not there, being upfront might be the best course of action. This is the approach adopted by Ben. “It is a question of being completely honest with our staff as to what future opportunities may or may not develop within the legal function itself,” he points out. But this needn’t mean the loss of a team member, he argues. “There may not be many opportunities for promotion. For some people this is fine and understood,” he says, adding that, “it is also important to consider opportunities that may exist elsewhere in the organisation, outside of the legal team.”

For ambitious staff, it could mean being candid about the market outside your own operation in order to build trust with the team. Arijit has a novel approach when it comes to dealing with approaches from recruiters. “I am generally very frank and open with my team,” he says. “Given the tight legal and compliance market in Singapore, I share with my team if I receive a call or come across an opportunity outside Zurich, because I am certain that a few of my team members will also be approached. We discuss the pros and cons of joining it.” Nurturing a personal relationship with staff based on candour is key to retention in the long term he argues, so they have faith that their manager has their best interests at heart. For Arijit, it’s not about “retaining people in a box”, rather optimising the potential of individuals – which he believes reward him with loyalty, perhaps years down the line.

It might be disappointing to see a team member go, but if they do so with the blessing of the general counsel and good relationships intact, this could result in fruitful future partnerships outside of a direct employment relationship if they take roles in private practice, government departments, or regulators.

Truly incentivising and motivating legal team members often means taking a long-term view, keeping their contentment in sight in the short term. And no one loses out from an engaged workforce. “They’ll be happier, which means they’ll be a better attorney,” says Stanton. “And I think if people are happy, they are going to produce better results overall.”