How to Motivate and Retain In-House Legal Teams

How to Motivate and Retain In-House Legal Teams

6 months ago by Ansir Mahmood

Staff retention is a key concern for all employers. For General Counsels or Heads of Legal, low staff turnover leads to a stable, happy team and ultimately increased productivity. The longevity of tenure in a legal team allows firms to benefit from the investments they make into on-going training and development, as well as benefiting from the industry and company knowledge they acquire over time. Heads of Legal may find the challenge of keeping their teams together over-whelming at times, but recognise it is necessary to achieve maximum efficiencies and outputs.

Engagement & Motivation are Key

A quick search on Google will show many articles on employee motivation, and some of them will be applicable to legal teams. However, for the purpose of this article, I will stick to focusing particularly on the legal teams in-house within financial institutions and offer advise based on my experience dealing everyday with in-house lawyers looking to make a move. One of the first questions we ask everyone we speak with is why they are looking to change their job and what could have kept them in their current position for a longer period of time. It is apparent that many jump ship to escape a feeling of inertia. Keeping employees, especially lawyers, excited about their jobs and focused by constantly challenging them is imperative.  

Below are few key strategies that I believe can help you keep your legal in-house team engaged and motivated.

Provide On-Going Career Development

Lawyers, like many other types of professionals, want to be constantly challenged and continually seek to grow in their careers. A common reason we hear from active job seekers is that the work in their current role is very repetitive and they feel their careers are have been stagnating for some time. An in-house lawyer whose role is very specialist with a narrow focus is more likely to get bored and lose motivation over time, compared with someone who has a broader role with wider coverage.

Moving staff internally, temporary or permanent, can be a good strategy for the lawyers who have been in the same role for several years. Heads of Legal should think of offering as much variety as they can, changing the scope of roles from time to time to keep lawyers engaged. We have seen some decision makers, notably in the insurance sector, successfully take a more creative approach by providing opportunities for their staff to switch their roles on a temporary basis through secondments to other legal teams, thus allowing them to learn some new products and skills. If for instance, you have separate teams for equities and fixed income legal within global markets, sending someone from the fixed income legal team to spend a few months with the equities legal team and vice versa can be a good strategy.

The infrastructure or scale of business means it is not always possible to allow such mobility, so another option could be to take on other corporate governance work from a related field such as compliance, to broaden a lawyer’s repertoire and get a sense on how the wider business operates. Secondment to an overseas office can also be a very good solution at times, especially in companies operating vastly different markets.

Flexibility & Work/Life Balance is Important

Employees place high value on benefits such as flexible hours and work-from-home options. It serves several purposes, obviously primarily it allows employees to help prioritise their work/life balance allowing them to choose to be available to be with their families when they need to. It also demonstrates trust on the part of team heads, demonstrating that they know and understand that the job will be done, and that targets and outcomes will be met and managed. Put simply, it says employers know employees are dedicated and professional enough to organise their own workflows. It goes without saying that an employee that is happy at home is more likely to be happy at work.

Create a Fun Work Environment

Of course, your employees are very serious about doing their job, as they should be. However, creating opportunities for an element of fun at work has many benefits. It relieves stress, creates an atmosphere of positivity and encourages team cohesion and innovation.

There are many ways to foster a fun work environment. Every company has its unique company culture and ideas on what “fun at work” may look like. Organised activities such as team-building and social events allow colleagues to spend more time together away from their daily duties, where they can better understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. A good team leader will build on insights gleaned from the fun times and use it to keep employees happy and maximise productivity.

Provide Opportunities for Growth

On-going learning opportunities are a great way to fully show a firm is invested in an individual’s career and creates an environment where lawyers, especially, can feel valued. Anything from supporting the path to gaining additional formal qualifications or organising in-house workshops on industry and legal topics to funding online courses or facilitating event attendance. Lawyers have already devoted many years to study, finely honing their craft and innately understand and relish the chance to enhance their skills.

Ask Questions And Listen To The Answers

Most banks and financial intuitions have positive open-door policies and established HR procedures that encourage ongoing dialogue with employees. Within a legal team, it is equally important for General Counsels or Heads of Legal to frequently check on how their lawyers are feeling about their role or the work they are undertaking. Often small issues can grow to larger issues that are difficult to tackle if left to fester. Open communication takes time and effort but can identify any potential problems before they arise. For many employees, simply being asked on occasion “What can I do to support you?” is enough to make them feel like a valued team member.

Replacement hiring is an unavoidable element of running teams or departments and if approached positively can open opportunities for injecting renewed enthusiasm and vigour into a team. In short, if you fail to retain staff and find yourself in a hiring situation it is not the end of the world. Overall, the clients we work with in international financial intuitions are sad to see team members move on and see the value of implementing measure to maintain an established and successful team. Some of the simple steps detailed above will help with staff stability, but should you be recruiting, they will also help you attract the next generation of legal masterminds.

Ansir Mahmood is a Director with Aquis Search and has over 10 years of specialised experience in running the legal in-house financial services and legal in-house commerce teams based in Hong Kong. Contact him on or via LinkedIn