Blog Post

A future-fit legal team starts with emotionally intelligent leadership, not tech

August 5, 2019

Exigent’s Global Managing Director Nicola Stott on how legal leaders should develop themselves and their teams in the face of increased technological complexity

Would you get on an autonomous aeroplane, piloted by an algorithm? That’s what I was asked at a recent event led by Thimon de Jong about Business Strategy. I was surprised to find myself– the leader of a global legal technology company– thinking “Not a chance!” I was shocked at this very primordial form of technophobia. And it humbled me to recognize that on a different scale (but not that dissimilar), this must be what lawyers feel when they’re told “A robot will replace you.” While this is a platitude, there are areas of legal where Artificial Intelligence and other technology applications are indeed changing the role of both legal professionals and leaders, so it’s important to recognize that there is more than meets the eye when we choose and implement new tools.

Technology (and the legal landscape changing with the Big Four and Private Equity sweeping in) is having a huge impact in the way legal departments are operating. It’s not just the rise of Legal Operations roles, but also process improvement and the increased access to data: there is a shift in the expectations of what a legal department is supposed to deliver, how quickly and smartly. The corporate bubble legal had been living in- where nobody expected anything more than risk and compliance support from the nay-sayers in legal- has burst. Lawyers, like everyone else in today’s companies across all industries, are expected to work across departments, understand data and be flexible to learn new tools and ways of doing things. The only way to survive this shift is by having leaders who can adapt, be comfortable in the unknown and train their team to do the same.

Emotional tech

It’s through the so-called ‘soft’ skills that leaders understand how best to develop their teams. This is true for legal leaders and C-suite alike. Understanding how to lead in times of change means sensing where our teams are in their developmental journey and the ability to engage them in the process: are they ready to use that new tool or will they reject it, struggle to integrate it in their daily routine and ultimately oppose it because they don’t understand the bigger picture? It’s a bit like the story of the automatic lift: invented in 1900, it attracted the same skepticism and fear as today’s driverless cars (or planes!) until mirrors, soft music and an operator that pressed the buttons were added. All ways to smooth the transition from humans to machines and to acknowledge the discomfort of change, the feeling of losing control and the emotional connection we have with technology. We must do the same with every tool we introduce in our team’s operations: not just calculating the ROI, but also plan for the change management programme that goes with it.

Are we part of the problem?

As legal leaders, we need to first do a bit of self-enquiry and ask ourselves if we do have the skills we need to lead in these times of change. A recent report by Morrison Foerster made me wide-eyed: 81% of the GCs they interviewed said they thought it was crucial to be on the Board, and yet only 28% identified emotional intelligence as a priority in their leadership development. How do we think we are going to get to the top without influencing, communication and stakeholder management skills? The survey shows it’s ‘legal skills’ GCs value the most. This in-congruency is worrying but not surprising. The way legal leaders are trained puts too much emphasis on rational reasoning and the status that comes with being a lawyer. It’s hard for someone who has worked so hard to get ‘the title’ to recognize it’s not enough, let alone admit sometimes it actually gets in the way of good leadership. Some people argue GCs don’t have to be- and shouldn’t- be lawyers, just good leaders. Regardless of your academic background, I think we should all ask ourselves some fundamental questions:

Are we part of the problem?
Have we got the emotional intelligence skills needed to manage the digital upheaval?
Have we got the skills you are expecting from your team?
Do we think like a CEO or a lawyer?
Is age getting in the way of managing a millennial workforce?
Are we not as tech-savvy as we should be?
What is our ‘automatic elevator,’ the fear factor that prevents us from advancing?
Are we leading by example?

It’s important to set your starting point: identify the gaps you need to fill in your own development to then be able to lead with courage and skill. Growth is an on-going job, so we should all include networking, joining groups and talking to peers to keep it up. I find that getting inspiration and staying informed on industry developments is key to being a leader that teams look up to.

How do we prepare our legal team for this tech revolution?

I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think there’s a one size fits all approach that will work for everyone, but I think that leading by example is certainly the first step in helping our teams understand how to thrive in times of change. At the same time, there are a number of very specific skills we should focus on to succeed, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard.’

In my personal and professional experience, I have found that the core principle is to empower everyone to be a leader and embrace extreme ownership; that means taking responsibility and asking ourselves what we can do better. It’s crucial for legal professionals to own the evolution of their role, not be scared of it. It’s not just about the tools, but about the mindset. It is also vital to work on stakeholder management skills, coupled with assertiveness and communications training. In looking at these development programmes for my team, I always think: “I wish they had been exposed to this at an earlier stage” and I’m left with a frustration about the education that lawyers receive. As legal leaders, we have a responsibility to train and help our teams, but we should also lobby educational institutions to ask that these aspects are included in the curriculum. One easy way to do it is to call up the university we graduated at and say: “Can I come and give a talk about the non-legal skills you need to be a lawyer these days?” If enough of us do it, maybe we can start a small revolution.

Naturally, in the new digital landscape, our lawyers need technical skills, too. It’s not just how to use a specific tool (I would argue that any new application should have a good enough UX to allow for easiness of use and minimal training). It is, again, more about the mindset. Analytical skills are what is needed. Understanding data. Knowing what to look for in data and how to manipulate it will be paramount for success in a legal role in the future. In any role, really. Legal professionals should always make the connection with business outcomes, financial implications and ultimately think like a CEO. For that to happen we need to make sure they are fully engaged with the company’s strategy and kept in the loop if the goalposts change. Engagement and training go hand in hand.

Finally, we need to allow time for our legal teams to grow. Most in-house lawyers will tell you they barely have time to get over the day-to-day workload, let alone learn about new technology or how to make the most of data. The hourly rates culture is certainly a barrier in our industry, but as employers we have the responsibility to create an environment for this change to feel possible and allow time to actually do it. If it were easy, we’d all be doing it: it’s not. It’s a challenge we have to tackle if we are going to achieve future-fitness.

What’s next

I feel strongly that we must actively engage with change in the legal industry, not sleepwalk into a future where technology becomes scary because we weren’t able to deal with the emotional and technical challenges associated with its rise. I’m writing all of this after an invigorating meeting I had with fellow female legal leaders. We met at a networking event and felt compelled to create a sort of think-tank to tackle these issues. Our conversations had an added level of complexity (gender!), but we all felt these are challenges that need practical, tangible solutions and that we want to be at the forefront of creating a new paradigm. We haven’t figured out yet the shape our work is going to take, but I guarantee you: you’ll hear more about it soon.

I’m sure there are plenty of legal leaders out there who, like me, feel a change is needed and want to commit to co-create this new landscape. If you are forward-thinking, have energy and creativity to help, please join us: let’s connect and chat about it. Together we can make a difference.

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