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In-house legal recruitment: seven skills to look for

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Recruitment is a core responsibility for a GC, but what skills in particular should you be looking for when hiring? Paul Newton lists his top seven competencies.

A GC’s responsibilities cover many areas, but none perhaps more important than talent management.

There are a number of reasons for this.

  • A lot is expected of in-house lawyers – legal teams are expected to be risk managers, take on other functional responsibilities, make a significant contribution to strategy and business decisions etc.
  • The expectations of in-house lawyers are changing, and more want the opportunity to spread their wings and move into general management.
  • The business and regulatory environment is constantly changing, challenging and complex.
  • Increasingly, organisations are expecting legal teams to think about succession planning.  

GCs must pay a lot more attention to managing the legal talent pool, to ensure the legal team can comfortably meet these demands and expectations.

Talent management begins with recruitment. Most GCs would agree that it is no longer enough to focus on lawyering skills, qualifications and experience. However, CVs often focus too much on legal expertise and experience, and in truth, so does the recruitment process.

Below, I list some additional key capabilities and qualities over and above hygiene factors which I have found helpful to focus on. I strongly recommend them.

1. Risk orientation 

Organisations need lawyers who understand that risk and opportunity go hand in hand. The in-house lawyer’s role is not to avoid legal risk, but to help the organisation strike the right balance between risk and opportunity. One could argue that an in-house lawyer’s role is to help the business to maximise opportunity within its appetite for risk. This requires a particular mindset and a willingness where appropriate to allow other factors and risks to override the legal issues.

Assessing a candidate’s approach and mindset to risk is hugely important. It will help you understand whether they will work with or against the business.

2. Legal risk management capability

This is different to risk orientation. Legal risk management involves systematically identifying, assessing, mitigating and monitoring legal risk across an organisation. It is important, because legal and regulatory risk is increasingly impacting on businesses. And businesses are increasingly expected, if not required, to have strong risk management systems and controls in place.

It is too easy for lawyers at all levels to focus on individual transactions and projects. They sometimes do not see the need or lack the capability to undertake the systematic and holistic management of legal risk. It is therefore important, particularly when recruiting senior lawyers, to determine the importance they place on this, and their experience and expertise in managing risk at an enterprise level.

3. Resilience

Never mind the work environment – life in general is stressful. Resilience is the ability to roll with the punches. Organisational change, unfair negative feedback, difficult colleagues, unrelenting workload, role ambiguity, failure to secure a promotion … the list goes on. So many things can sap drive and motivation and pile on stress. Assessing a person’s ability to bounce back, adapt well to change and keep going when things get tough is hugely important. It has a significant bearing on an individual’s capacity to be consistently effective, come what may.

4. Influence

Good communication skills are a basic requirement. And we should not fall into the trap of thinking that good communication skills necessarily translate into influence. Communication is about getting your point of view across; influence is about getting others to be swayed by your opinion. The ability to influence is particularly important for those in-house lawyers who do not have executive power.

Evaluating the ability of candidates to exert influence is key to assessing their likely effectiveness. Matrix management frameworks, remote working, use of digital technology, increased staff turnover and other factors also make it more difficult to influence people than in the past. This further underlines the importance of this skill.

5. Growth potential

This is the ability and aspiration to grow, take on more responsibility and challenges, and contribute beyond the job description. Recruiting for growth potential is about recruiting for tomorrow and not just today, even if it is not clear what tomorrow might look like. It is important to have team members who can grow and progress, and not just those who may perform well, but do not have the hunger or potential to develop outside their role.

Recruiting individuals with growth potential also introduces healthy competition within the team. The impact of in-house lawyers having ‘worthy rivals’ should not be underestimated in helping to ratchet up overall team performance.

6. Leadership

It is important to look for leadership qualities in recruits, particularly when recruiting more senior lawyers. Leaders are those who see possibility in bringing about change in their organisation, and who can enrol and inspire others to bring about that change. It is not enough for in-house lawyers to just be good managers and do their job well. It is leaders who plan for the future, create value and, ultimately, sit on the executive table.

Leadership is a scarce resource, and provides an opportunity for lawyers to be seen as significant contributors to the success of an organisation, and not just as a support function.

7. Judgement and drive

It is important to understand an individual’s ability to exercise sound judgement and demonstrate drive. Hiring for good judgement is critical; many problems and issues arise because of poor judgement. We all make mistakes, but undoubtedly some people have better judgement than others. Common sense, strong critical reasoning skills, professionalism and a sound ethical compass should not be taken for granted.

It is difficult to assess someone’s ability to make sound judgements, but this does not mean it should be overlooked in recruitment. As for drive, you either have it, or you don’t. It is not something that can be learnt, although you can help give it direction. This is why it is so vital to assess someone’s drive when recruiting, in particular their drive to deliver outcomes,  learn and grow and take responsibility for their own careers.

Conclusion

Not everything I have discussed will be relevant to every recruit to the same extent. And unless you use some sort of psychometric testing or assessment tool, it will not be easy to cover all of these areas thoroughly. However, simply asking interviewees to give examples of how they demonstrate these qualities / capabilities will tell you a lot about them.

The list is also not definitive; others might place stress on the importance of qualities I do not mention here, such as empathy. However, these capabilities have served me well throughout my career. The important thing is that successful talent management involves more than recruiting people with a particular skill set to do a particular job well. It involves recruiting individuals with the skills, qualities and capabilities that can add value and help the legal team meet the increasing demands and expectations of their organisation, both now and in the future.

Paul Newton led a multi-award winning team of 100 lawyers as GC for Bupa, the leading independent global healthcare group. Paul retired from Bupa at the end of 2016, after 30 years with the company.

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