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The five principles to increase employee engagement, and how well they apply to in-house attorneys

If it’s in the HBR, it must be true. So here are the five from the Harv. Bus. Rev., March 2010 at 24: “Keep people informed, listen, set clear objectives, match the person with the job, and create meaningful work.” How applicable are these principles in a legal department?

Keep people informed. True everywhere as a tonic for engagement, and perhaps even more true for a collection of highly educated professionals. But I think many legal departments fall very far short of transparency. For example, in virtually all the departments where I have consulted, the lawyers who are not the general counsel’s direct reports speculate and wonder what happens in the senior staff meetings.

Listen. Honored in the breach. As busy as senior lawyers are or feel they are, they often don’t leave time for focused attention to what someone is saying. They discount the person, they clash in terms of personality or conversational style, they have their own priorities that are more important, they just don’t care. It happens with children: parents check out. It happens with those who supervise in legal departments.

Set clear objectives. To the degree that lawyers in corporations cannot quantify what they do, it is difficult to set clear objectives. A general counsel can tell the head of litigation “Avoid lawsuits and win the ones we must fight, but with reasonable expense.” That directive may be clear, but it is hardly useful. “Resolve 80% of your cases where less than $1 million is at stake within 18 months at no more than our average settlement cost per case” states an objective clearly, but it is hard to propound many of them (See my post of Feb. 23, 2006: SMART goals; April 8, 2005: dumb SMART goals and their distorting effect; March 2, 2008: to set targets is not as effective as to promote behaviors; and Sept. 21, 2008: annual reviews and evaluations, with 12 references.).

Match the person with the job. After you hire someone who presumably matches a need as well as circumstances permit, this injunction becomes harder and harder to fulfill. A company changes, the law changes, the set of people around changes, a person’s interests change, all of which can either create a mismatch or smooth the square peg into a round peg. In general, general counsel urge members of the department to adjust themselves to the ever-changing demands of clients. They shape the person’s services to the job.

Create meaningful work. Law departments never lack enough meaningful work to go around. No general counsel has to create it. But there is also boring work, commodity tasks that have to be handled by the shovelful. To deal with that, assignment of routine work to outside counsel, temps, offshore vendors, and even back to clients can increase the ratio of time spent on meaningful legal work to time spent on lower-value work.

The topic of engagement is too broad to address meaningfully and I have been curt. These five steps can’t be faulted, but I wonder whether stunted career trajectories – no promotions likely and no place to grow – may be the most severe impediment to engagement for some in-house lawyers.

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