Leveraging Legal: How to Unlock a Secret Weapon for Solid (Not Siloed) Teams

Factor Team
December 5, 2022

In almost any organization, different departments struggle to align. Legal departments aren’t immune. 

Crossing departmental lines can be tough. It can feel like each team speaks its own language and follows its own priorities. Trouble with cooperation isn’t unique – it’s also not new.  

Problems with effective teamwork have been studied for decades; 97% of executives and employees cite a lack of alignment as directly impacting a task’s outcome, so it’s no surprise that 86% of executives say ineffective collaboration and communication is a major cause of failure.  

But research into high-functioning teams suggests that bridging the divide is both possible and powerful. More vital to the business than ever, legal is uniquely positioned to take the leap. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that legal must work closely with the rest of the business in order to meet the demands of an evolving landscape.   

Legal has the unique ability to facilitate better cross-functional teamwork in any organization; that potential can be unlocked with a few key strategies. 

Barriers to Better Cooperation 

Whether in-person or virtual, we all increasingly work as part of cross-functional teams. But if our feelings about this sort of teamwork had a Facebook status, most of us would apply the label “It’s complicated.” We’ve all seen the friction: marketing departments might say that legal is watering down its messages; business teams might complain that legal is restricting them; salespeople might feel legal is slowing its deals and so on. 

The Science of Superior Teams 

The fact that teamwork creates better outcomes is no secret.  The science of interdisciplinary cooperation has been studied and made actionable.  

Google’s Human Resources department, for example, performed a massive study of their highest-performing interdisciplinary teams. They found key characteristics that define strong teams:  

  1. Psychological safety, so that trying something won’t be repaid with embarrassment 
  2. Dependability, so that team members can trust everyone will do their part 
  3. Structure and clarity, so that stakeholders understand their responsibilities 
  4. Meaning of work, so that team members feel personally invested in their roles  
  5. Impact of work, so that everyone feels their efforts matter. 

While the teams that Google studied are largely product oriented (an important distinction when thinking about the way legal teams are organized), the underlying themes remain relevant as they relate to all cross-functional teamwork. 

Additionally, Author Shane Snow dispelled many myths about high-performing teams in his book Dream Teams. Summarizing decades of research, Snow found that seeing the world differently and being empowered to share those views leads to the best work. 

Two aspects of diverse teams provide leverage and encourage more integration of legal with other departments, according to Snow: 

  • Diverse perspectives: How team members see a problem 
  • Diverse heuristics: How team members go about solving a problem 

These contrasting inputs often create conflict, and Snow says that’s surprisingly productive. The best teams butt heads while remaining focused on the company’s goals. 

Legal teams often have work to do in finding compelling ways to inject their unique perspective and heuristics. As the diversity of views increases, managing the inevitable and necessary friction is where the magic happens. 

As Snow concluded, “teams with diverse mental tool kits consistently outperform groups of ‘the best and the brightest.’” 

Changes in the business environment have made including legal teams in these interdisciplinary efforts ever more vital. That’s because the legal department is uniquely equipped to address every company’s biggest threat: complexity. 

The Necessity of Legal and Business Alignment 

Every executive knows that collaboration builds better outcomes. But what makes legal a particularly valuable piece of the teamwork puzzle and why is their input more valuable today than ever? 

Legal teams are trained to grapple with complexity. 

Legal teams sit at the center of your company’s complex engagement with the outside world. They work with sales, procurement, development, management, communications and more. From this perspective, they have visibility into risks and opportunities in an interconnected way.  

In addition, lawyers are trained to play current decisions forward in time, formulating possible outcomes and protecting against harm. This forward-thinking ability also enables lawyers to imagine possible opportunities and capitalize on them. 

Leveraging the legal team as a strategic asset is both a compelling way to stand out and a vital way to stay ahead. So, how can it be achieved? 

Strategies for Breaking Down Departmental Barriers  

Legal should be solving problems, managing risk, and navigating strategies. So, how do you shift them to this higher use where they are collaborating more freely, working in tandem with other teams? There are a few key steps: 

  • Allow legal departments to focus on the work that only they can do. The most urgent legal tasks can crowd out the most important. Frustratingly, high-level advisory work is precisely what in-house teams should be focusing on – no one else can do it. But they spend most of their time handling recurring transactional work.  
  • Invite challenge, but eliminate an us vs. them mentality. As we’ve established, diverse teams are more effective. They challenge each other, and legal is particularly well-equipped to raise insight that other teams may not have. It’s important to loop legal in on strategic matters, but it’s also important to encourage regular cross-departmental communication so the dividing lines feel blurry and unimportant.  
  • Address underlying issues. When organizations attempt to give legal departments the freedom to focus on high-level advisory projects by outsourcing commoditized work, they’re not addressing the core problem. Commoditized work isn’t what’s burying legal departments, so outsourcing it doesn’t fix the issue of bandwidth. Not to mention, the outsourcing model is counterintuitive to the concept of teamwork and alignment that organizations are targeting.  
  • Instill meaning and dependability. Although the frequent, urgent tasks that so often engross legal teams can have a large impact on the business, it doesn’t always feel that way. When the work is completed in isolation, it may go unrecognized. Giving the legal department an opportunity to engage with others on strategic work provides a sense of meaning. And when they can trust that their workloads won’t unexpectedly spike, they have the mental bandwidth to zoom their focus out and take a holistic view of the organization.  

For an organization to maintain success in today’s evolving landscape, close cooperation between departments is vital. Leverage your legal team as a strategic force and a cross-departmental partner – in an increasingly complex world, there’s no better team to tap.