4 Steps to Close Skill Gaps in Legal

May 07, 2018

Contributor: Sharon George

Skill gaps are emerging as legal operating models shift to keep pace with business. Four steps enable legal to close them proactively.

The role of the in-house legal and compliance function is changing rapidly, especially given the pace of digitalization. New skills and competencies are in demand — and many are foreign to the legal function, especially those with years of private law firm experience. Legal needs to address those skill gaps head on.

“ In-house legal departments will require a mix of new and existing skills to support the business’ digital goals”

Legal, rethinking how to deliver value to the organization, needs to be more agile and responsive to enable new business models. This evolution requires in-house lawyers to be tech-savvy, to understand components of effective product and service design, and to collaborate, persuade and manage projects with multiple cross-functional stakeholders.

“In-house legal departments will require a mix of new and existing skills to support the business’ digital goals. Given how competitive the labor market is for these skills, particularly in lawyers, it is critical for general counsel to identify these skill gaps early, and put a plan in place to acquire them,” says Vidhya Balasubramanian, practice leader, Legal and Compliance Practice at Gartner.

4 key legal skill sets

As the legal department’s role, delivery model and resources shift, four critical skill sets emerge:

  • Technology orientation. As automation and artificial intelligence (AI) shape business, conscious effort and training is needed for in-house lawyers to develop skills in the areas of technology, data analytics and data security.
  • Project management. As digitalization brings changes to the legal sourcing and delivery model, in-house lawyers need to partner with a variety of alternative legal vendors and cross-functional stakeholders to meet productivity and cost objectives.
  • Change management and persuasion skills. In-house lawyers have to understand a variety of disciplines that intersect with legal issues if organizations are to anticipate and respond to legal risks quickly. Their interaction with multiple stakeholders makes effective change management and persuasion skills critical.
  • Product design mindset. The new work environment requires legal teams to think like product designers and create scalable solutions that can be embedded into business workflows.

4 steps to close legal skill gaps

Skill gaps cannot be closed overnight. Changes to competency models, role design, career paths and training are needed. There are four imperatives:

  1. Update the competency model. Heads of legal should refresh their competency models to better reflect a broader set of skills, including those that will become more critical in the near future. They should let employees at every level know their skills expectations and play to their strengths. For example, if a certain team of junior lawyers is already familiar with emerging technologies, the expectations around technology may be higher than for those roles being reskilled from scratch.
  2. Redesign roles. Legal departments need to revise role and job descriptions to better reflect emerging skill requirements. They must also avoid generic job descriptions that fail to clarify evolving expectations. One way to do this is for job roles to emphasize key behaviors and responsibilities rather than focus on narrowly defined skills.
  3. Train and develop. This is an area in which most legal departments can improve. They should adopt a mix of training and self-learning approaches to achieve the baseline skills needed in emerging tools and technologies. Workflow shadowing is another useful tactic. Unlike job shadowing, which exposes employees to the workday of another person, workflow shadowing invites employees to observe how a process flows from employee to employee across the organization. This visibility helps lawyers gain insight into the priorities, challenges and partnerships that inform the day-to-day work of many peers in the organization.
  4. Reorient career paths away from a linear, position-based approach and toward a more flexible model that exposes employees to critical opportunities for on-the-job learning. For legal, this might include rotating staff into business units to provide the right exposure. Legal teams can identify the best experiences to develop high-value skills, such as project management and product design, and directly tie employee career paths to develop those skills. Organizations that use this approach find it closes skill gaps and increases employee engagement.

To keep pace with changing business needs, says Abbott Martin, research leader at Gartner, “Legal must be deliberate and proactive to acquire needed skills early. Those that do will be much better positioned for the future. In today’s war for talent, it will be nothing short of a competitive advantage.”

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