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How to manage a distributed legal team - Natalie Salunke, Fleetcor

Natalie Salunke, 27 February 2020

GCs are tasked with running day-to-day legal tasks and managing the team - but there’s a shift in responsibility when the legal function exists internationally. 

As VP & Head of Legal at Fleetcor, I have seven direct reports: a lawyer, a paralegal and a Head of Compliance, who are both based in the UK; a legal and compliance manager in the Netherlands; a Head of Legal in Russia, who manages a team of 11 lawyers; and finally, two consultants, based in France and Belgium. 

Being at the top of the pyramid, I get to weave everything together and establish opportunities for clear communication, but in an ideal world the legal function would have a shared system in place. A lot of my challenges are typical for any GC at a high-growth tech company, but as the head of the European team, I need to ensure a robust communications structure is in place, so we can connect the team and encourage collaboration. Here’s how to make it happen. 

1) Hiring the right people 🤝

When scaling a team internationally, it’s useful when you hire to look for specific traits and skillsets if you know that you’ll have to manage new hires remotely. Candidates should be able to balance loyalty and engagement with the wider business with their obligations to the legal team. They need to be able to overcome tensions and conflicts of interest between legal and commercial, and reprioritize based on what the business wants legal to achieve. I hire lawyers who are comfortable with that level of responsibility.

“When you have lawyers in different offices, it’s important to develop trust and approachability - how can you hope to understand and empathize without it?”

It’s also important to hire for cultural fit. Candidates that adopt the team culture and make the effort to get to know people are essential to make team-building a reality, rather than an ambition. If they don’t have that level of engagement, interactions can feel disconnected and transactional, especially over digital platforms like Slack or email. When you have lawyers in different offices, it’s important to develop that element of trust and approachability - how can you hope to understand and empathize without it?

2) Investing in the individual 🙋‍♀️

Creating a sense of unity can be challenging when proximity isn’t an option, so you have to create a sense of value in operating as a distributed team. I work hard to get the buy-in from my team around what I’m trying to achieve; they can’t just see me as a bureaucratic superior that micromanages the function. There’s a certain level of value to be gained on an individual basis before you can explore the group potential. You have to do the best you can with the resources you have - the strength of the team exists because of how much you invest in the individual.

“Getting to know your team is essential... Creating that atmosphere of curiosity and care will result in a team that adds value, thrives, and genuinely cares about each other” 

It’s also important to ask yourself - what is gained by proximity? It’s easier to talk to people when they’re physically within reach, but a level of proximity can be met through different means of contact. You have to make more of an effort in those interactions to invite people to talk about themselves beyond small talk and work matters. Getting to know your team is essential, and requires a proactive approach when the team is distributed. Creating that atmosphere of curiosity and care will result in a team that adds value, thrives, and genuinely cares about each other.

3) Encouraging collaboration and sharing knowledge 💡

Fostering a collaborative mentality is key, especially in an international team. Often, the simplest solutions are the most effective - I created a group chat for my legal team where everyone could engage with each other, collaborate and share work updates. But it extends beyond that - it’s also great for non-work related talk, and we regularly take time out to acknowledge each other on important milestones. It might seem trivial but it really makes a distributed legal team feel more connected, more informal, and approachable if we can celebrate birthdays together.

It’s difficult to establish a genuine connection between team members who are separated by timezones and geography - but it’s essential. We try and arrange meetups for the business whenever possible - you have to make the most of your budget, resources and tools, and picking up the phone is important, but there’s nothing better than a face-to-face meeting.

4) Preventing siloes 🤐

Jurisdictional siloes can be a challenge. It’s difficult to prevent this, and takes a certain type of mentality or a certain level of experience to be comfortable with the responsibility of crossing those borders. Cultural differences can also play a part, and it’s essential to keep this in mind - some people can feel embarrassment when they don’t know everything, and a sense of reluctance to ask. Creating an approachable team culture can make a huge difference, and that starts with me, from the top down. 

Legal challenges differ across countries, so of course we work with external law firms in different countries to overcome specific issues. We’re also encouraged to attend seminars, webinars and events to keep up-to-date - and that’s another opportunity for us to get together face to face. 

Managing a distributed team is a continuous investment, like any relationship.  There’s no real reason why a distributed team should be any less effective - as long as you put the work in. Consistency and structure are key: but if you get it right, and lead by example, the benefits speak for themselves.

Find out more about how Fleetcor can help your business better manage payments and expenses. 

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Topics: Legal operations

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