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The Rise of the Legal "Special Ops" Team

T he world is changing at an exponential pace, making the legal department's job tougher and more complex. Despite this, continued downward pressure on corporate profits means available legal resources will continue to be constrained in most companies.

To succeed in such an environment, legal teams must become more agile, evolving away from the siloed groups of specialists and generalists of old to a more fluid, agile, and "up-skilled" structure consisting of teams of smaller, roving, and highly capable professionals.

The best analogy might be a military one: Legal must evolve away from maintaining a Cold War style model of standing armies and move toward one that emphasizes "special ops" teams. The focus must be on smaller bands of highly capable and autonomous players who are able to flexibly and rapidly react to the evolving threats of an uncertain landscape.

[Related: Innovating with Legal Technology: Advice from Vendor CEOs]

As in the military, special ops teams ultimately report to commanders, but they are empowered to make more decisions in the field (within the context of their mission and ethical and governance frameworks). They are loyal to the mission rather than a particular group of business partners.

Each special ops member must possess unique capabilities, yet each is also capable of taking on the roles of the others when needed. A military special ops team might, for instance, have a sniper as well as a communications person. But if the sniper is incapacitated, the communications person is able to step in and act as a substitute sniper and vice versa. In the legal context, an M&A lawyer might be capable of working on a commercial agreement in a field division and vice versa.

[Related: Why ACC Value Champs Depend on Legal Ops to Succeed]

While interchangeability is key to this vision, it also requires that highly qualified and adaptable lawyers not undertake routine or transactional work that can be done more effectively by support teams. There needs to be a strict hierarchy of work allocation to ensure that the special ops teams are freed up to focus on solving the most compelling issues, leading to the equally critical support team to solve the more routine tasks.

Just as a military special ops team must nurture cultural traits and capabilities that differ from those of a conventional standing force, an agile legal team must possess certain critical skills. Those skills might vary depending on the company and the tasks, but to get you started in thinking about how this might apply in your context, below are some initial thoughts about "universal" traits that all special ops teams must have:

Cultural traits

  • Leads in a VUCA1 business environment by leveraging multiple points of view, emotional intelligence, and data;
  • Demonstrates commitment to the company's and the department's strategy, putting the needs of the whole above those of any sub-unit;
  • Achieves desired outcomes through inclusive and effective collaboration;
  • Champions innovation and uses data insights to take calculated risks;
  • Shows courage by taking bold and decisive actions to solve problems and deliver ambitious outcomes;
  • Builds a diverse, cross-cultural, and engaged workforce by actively investing in individual and team development; and,
  • Acts as a role model and advocate for the company's values.

Capabilities

  • Technical excellence
    • Superior intellect;
    • Demonstrated and deep legal expertise in areas of core risk (specialists) or legal capabilities that help promote the company's business (generalists); and,
    • Able to crystallize a problem and communicate it in a way that is easily understood by colleagues and partners.
  • Learning agility
    • Able to rapidly acquire and apply new knowledge;
    • An innate sense of curiosity and a desire for self-driven learning; and,
    • The heart of a teacher: willing and able to share and teach knowledge to others.
  • Courage
    • Able to identify and protect the company's core interest despite commercial pressure
  • Commercial edge
    • Good understanding of the business and its objectives;
    • Pragmatic and solution oriented; and,
    • Financial literacy.
  • Organization building
    • Inspirational leadership;
    • Communication skills; and,
    • Able to explain an objective, rally people around it, and lead them to achieve it.
  • Grit
    • Able to stay motivated and determined to succeed in respect of challenging goals over a long period of time despite setbacks.
  • Data-based insights
    • Willing and able to leverage data and analytics to improve things.
  • Trust and credibility
    • Able to build trust and credibility in others.
  • EQ/CQ
    • Emotional and cultural intelligence;
    • Likeable and friendly; and,
    • Quick study of human character and drive.

This is admittedly by no means a final list, merely a starting point for reflection. The list may also shift depending on the needs of your organization.

Regardless of the specific list, what is universal for all is that once you have arrived at the right lists of cultural traits and capabilities, you will need to benchmark your top talent against those lists to determine where you are well positioned and where you are currently falling short.

The world of learning is changing rapidly and the legal profession is at an inflection point. The "more for less" challenge points us toward a world in which we must become more agile, flexible, and pragmatic. As we move toward that destination, it is incumbent on us to explore the implications of that shift in terms of both capabilities and cultural traits. It will be interesting to watch the rise of the "legal special ops" teams.

NOTES
1 VUCA = volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

About the Author

Bjarne PBjarne P. Tellmann is chief legal officer and general counsel of Pearson and a member of its executive team. Until recently, he authored the ACC Docket “Career Path” column. His book, Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel, was recently published by Globe Law and Business. He serves on the University of Chicago Alumni Board with Prashant Dubey, as well as on the University of Chicago Law School Council.


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