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From Player to Coach: Advice from the L Suite Community on Effectively Leading a Legal Team

Three attendees seated at conference table; center attendee appears to be speaking

Even managing a team, many GCs still get stuck in the role of individual contributors. Learn how to remove yourself from the day-to-day and lead a successful legal team.


  • Joy Batra

    Director of Content

Team Building & Management

Featuring Insights From:


  • Sean Burke

    Founding Partner
    Whistler Partners
    Sean Burke, Founding Partner at Whistler Partners
  • Kate Karas

    Senior Advisor and Former GC
    Kate Karas, Former GC at Chime

Every general counsel starts as an individual contributor, whether as the sole legal role in a startup or a lower-level in-house role. But as you build a legal team underneath you, you’ll have to shift your mindset from player to coach. To equip your department for success, you’ll need to learn how to motivate your team, boost morale, and orient employees to strategic business goals.

Below, GCs of leading tech companies and a legal recruiting expert share what it takes to create departmental alignment and lead a successful team.

Key Takeaways

  • Seek to understand each team member as an individual and the unique things that motivate them, whether purpose, learning, or status.

  • Create alignment within your team and the company as a whole by establishing a unified view of risk.

  • Prioritize transparency and information-sharing — the more, the better — to keep everyone focused on the same goals.

  • Support your team’s career ambitions by offering them opportunities that align with their interests and goals.

Motivating Your Team

Your job is to understand and assign the substantive work of the legal department, but to do that effectively, it’s key to understand the members of your team, building motivation and deep personal connections.

Take an Individualized Approach

Motivating your team starts by understanding them as individuals. “You cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Kate Karas, former GC at Chime. “While motivation springs from a variety of sources for all of us, your teammates often orient towards a primary driver. Some people are motivated by purpose. Some by learning. Some by stature and credibility, and some by title and compensation.”

Understanding each team member’s North Star can help you orient them to the right opportunities, share impactful information, and provide more specific feedback for their career growth.

Create an Emotional Connection

Sean Burke, a former GC and now Founding Partner at legal recruiting firm Whistler Partners, recalls a mentor who once told him, “Leadership is not an affair of the head; it’s an affair of the heart.”

Today, he still ascribes to that ideal and recommends other GCs do the same. “You need to connect with people emotionally. They need to believe in you, and they need to believe in the company.” For him, that involves making his team’s working environment both fun and challenging. “A lot of it is being able to connect with them and turning it into these challenging things that you work on together.”

It’s also apparent — and contagious — when a leader truly enjoys his or her job. “Enthusiasm spreads,” says Karas. “If you love your job, you’ll be able to spread that to your team.”

Creating Strategic Alignment

As a leader and coach, it becomes your responsibility to create an intentional team culture and build alignment within your department and across the company as a whole.

Establish a Risk Calibration Scale

As you rise up as a leader, you must ensure that your team thinks about risk appropriately and consistently. “You need each part of your group, whether it’s corporate, IP, litigation, or employment, speaking with the same voice on risk and velocity,” says one L Suite member, a Chief Legal Officer at a genomics company. “That kind of harmonization and unification is really important and will make the legal department be perceived totally differently.”

Of course, there will be separate and firm sets of rules for different issues and areas, specifically those related to regulatory compliance needs — “where we just have to say no,” he says. But since most legal issues aren’t black and white, it’s helpful to have an overarching philosophy. “We have to think about magnitude and risk, because that’s how the business thinks about it,” he says. “We want everyone similarly calibrated to where the risk needle is across the board.”

Prioritize Visibility

As a GC, you will have more visibility into C-suite decision-making, and it can be difficult to determine how much to disclose to your team.

Karas takes the approach of, the more information, the better. “Keep your team in the know. It aids in leadership, coordination and savvy decision-making. While there will always be limitations on the extent to which you can share sensitive information, providing visibility into the general ideas behind company priorities and executive thought processes allows for high engagement and productive dialogue.”

It matters to Karas that her team knows the inner workings of our organization. “It drives deep alignment,” she says. “If everyone is focused on the same point on the horizon and we all know why, we can all row our individual boats in the same direction.”

She advises GCs to thoughtfully reflect on how much they share with their team. “Push yourself to really consider whether the line you’ve drawn on what you share is the right line to draw,” she says. “Trust your team. Sometimes there’s room for movement.”

Keeping Morale High

Beyond learning how to motivate your team members on an individual level, GCs directly influence their team’s collective attitude and enthusiasm for the company’s work.

Go to Bat for Your Team

“One of the things that demotivates people really quickly is the idea that the top person doesn’t have [your] back,” says the genomics company CLO. Mistakes will happen, of course — but how you handle them can signal to your team that you support them. “We’re not going to be right in every instance. We will own that mistake collectively as a legal department. We’re never going to point fingers at anyone.”

Show Appreciation

Karas subscribes to the ACP (appreciation, coaching, performance) model of feedback. “Constant appreciation — not overdone balloons and glitter, but frequent and specific validation and appreciation of what they’re doing — is incredibly important,” she says.

She adds that appreciation should be anchored in what motivates that individual. If they’re driven by stature and credibility, for instance, share with them how they impacted and are relied upon by cross-functional groups.

This is especially important for teams that work in a remote or hybrid capacity. “I’m assuming that they’re happy and I’m not really checking in when [they’re] not in the office every day. You can really miss stuff,” Burke says. “I have to remind myself, ‘Wait, they don’t necessarily know that I think they’re doing a great job, because I don’t see them.”

Connect Face-to-Face

In a semi- or fully remote environment, GCs should also strive to create human connection with their teams. “There’s just not a substitute for it,” says the genomics company CLO. “You can thank people in email, and I still pick up the phone to call everyone in the group once a month, but I force offsites. Everyone has dinner together, remembers they love each other, and realizes they forgot how fun these conversations are.”

He specifically recalls a recent happy hour his company hosted. “I hadn’t seen some of these people in two years,” he says. “You remember, ‘This is why I work here.’ It reminds you that this is the best part of it. There’s no way around it.”

Supporting Your Team’s Career Growth

Many lawyers pursue a GC or in-house role because they want to expand their practice or move in a different direction from a previous area of focus. As a leader, you have the opportunity to help them move toward their ultimate career goals.

For one L Suite member, this usually requires sacrificing some efficiency. For instance, if someone wants to get hands-on experience in M&A, you might staff them on the next deal alongside someone more experienced with those types of transactions. “It usually takes putting two people in a chair and being a little inefficient, but you have to be. Otherwise, people’s careers won’t get the growth they want,” he says.

Of course, this isn’t an easy path, and in most cases, it will require more work. “It’s important that everyone understands that you can provide more opportunity, but it requires an investment of time from everyone involved,” says Karas.

Need more advice for letting go of day-to-day tasks and leading a successful team? The L Suite’s members have made the transition — and they can help. Apply for membership now.

About The L Suite

Called “the gold standard for legal peer groups” and “one of the best professional growth investments an in-house attorney can make,” The L Suite is an invitation-only community for in-house legal executives. Over 2,000 members have access to 300+ world-class events per year, a robust online platform where leaders ask and answer pressing questions and share exclusive resources, and industry- and location-based salary survey data.

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