Servant Leadership for In-House Legal Counsel

by JD Supra Perspectives

The true Servant Leader in-house counsel listens and learns about the company’s business, so that they can not only put out legal fires as they arise, but anticipate and prevent most fires to begin with...

Many articles have been published in the last several years on the subject of “Servant Leadership” and how that applies to company business leaders in general. It is a concept, if successfully applied, which not only improves the leadership potential of a company leader, but also translates into improved employee morale and financial results for a company. However, not much attention has been paid to how the Servant Leadership concept can be applied to members of the legal departments of companies. The delivery of legal services is ultimately a service industry, where the application of Servant Leadership should be front and center.

What is Servant Leadership?

Before I discuss its application to the in-house legal department, let me first briefly discuss what Servant Leadership generally is. I found a good definition in Wikipedia which contrasts Servant Leadership from more traditional leadership models:

“Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the 'top of the pyramid.' By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The Servant Leader looks to the needs of others first and does everything in his or her power to contribute to the success of those he or she leads. According to the Wikipedia article,

“ … servant leadership instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase their own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement”.

Members of the Legal Department as Servant Leaders

The most obvious application of the Servant Leadership concept is to the management of the company legal department. Whether the General Counsel supervises a staff of 5 or 150, the Servant Leadership concept has application to the General Counsel’s management of the members of the law department. But that is not the subject of this article. The concept has application to both the formal law department leaders, as well as to the lawyers without formal leadership roles within the department. The application of the concept that I am talking about is to the delivery of legal services to internal clients.

Every lawyer within a company legal department is a leader, because internal clients are seeking leadership through and around legal issues that arise or potentially could arise.

I am talking about all members of legal departments, both big and small, becoming Servant Leaders to internal clients. In particular, I am talking about the improvement of the delivery of legal services within the company through Servant Leadership by all members of the corporate legal department. The objective in delivering legal services should ultimately be appreciating and meeting the needs of those who seek legal services. The mode of  delivery of legal services needs to be designed to meet those needs. That is Servant Leadership for in-house attorneys. Whether one serves as Chief Legal Officer/General Counsel or a Counsel, the ultimate objective is the recognition of and the satisfaction of internal client legal services needs.

How to Recognize Legal Services Needs

The first step to becoming a Servant Leader/in-house counsel is to recognize the needs of the internal clients you serve within the company. An-in-house attorney formally has one client, the company itself. However, in order to meet the needs of the company for the delivery of legal services one must treat individual internal business partners as the ultimate clients. It is their needs you need to understand on a micro scale, and not just the macro needs of the enterprise itself. Successful outside attorneys value and develop their fee paying clients. In-House attorneys need to follow the same approach with those departments and individuals to whom the in-house attorneys are dedicated.

Listening is the most valuable resource in understanding the legal services needs of internal clients.

The internal client may approach you requesting the type of legal services he or she believes is needed, but by active listening, the underlying issues can be better understood alternative legal services be proposed. Is a different type of entity needed? Should an outright denial of a claim be instead be turned into a litigation saving settlement?  Can an employment claim be avoided by a different course of action?

Active listening must be applied not only to understand the immediate legal issue being faced, but also to gain and understanding of the business departments themselves, so that the long term needs of the departments can be recognized and addressed. This listening should take place not only when direct legal issues are being addressed, but as the company departments carry out their day to day functions.

I stated in an earlier article, an “in-house counsel needs to become totally immersed in the business of the company.”  This means active participation in the company’s functions to gain an understanding of the company, and thereby provide “proactive legal services, as opposed to reactive legal services.” In order to gain the type of understanding necessary to become a proactive counsel, one must tour company facilities and attend department and staff meetings of department leaders. The legal counsel should be a proactive participant in such meetings, not only asking questions but providing timely presentations on relevant legal topics.

The true Servant Leader in-house counsel listens and learns about the company’s business, so that the Servant Leader can not only put out legal fires as they arise, but anticipate and prevent most fires to begin with. Become more like a businessman and less like a lawyer and in the process gain a better understanding of the internal client’s needs.

Meeting the Needs

Once the immediate and long term needs for legal services are recognized, how does the Servant Leader meet those needs?  “Reaching out” to others and seeking to “align” with them are perhaps overused terms these days, but they do have application here. The in-house lawyer who exhibits Servant Leadership should have his or her ability to deliver services aligned with the needs of internal clients. Obviously there are certain legally imposed deadlines that must take priority, but for the most part, activities of the in-house counsel in delivering services must be aligned with the needs of the internal clients. The particular legal tasks that take priority in an in-house counsel’s days should be prioritized to meeting the needs of the internal clients. The services being provided and the needs should be aligned.

There is a reason that when a lawyer provides legal advice and legal documents it is known as providing legal services. Organizing your day to meet the needs of your internal clients is the ultimate in providing legal services. The Servant Leader concept really does fit.

The timely delivery of quality legal services meets the Servant Leader goals. In the process, transactions can move forward, lawsuits and regulatory issues can be prevented or resolved, employment decisions can be made and business processes can generally move forward without the pendency of the delivery of legal services being seen as a hindrance. Legal services provided by a Servant Leader should enhance and enable, not hinder and delay.

As an in-house counsel your internal clients will take notice of your Servant Leader habits and be much more satisfied clients. As a Servant Leader, proactively anticipating your internal client’s needs, you will actually gain more control of your day, because you will be spending less time putting out the fires of crises that develop and more time in the much more desirable fire prevention activities. The Servant Leader concept is definitely a win-win situation for everyone involved!


[Walt Metz serves as Associate General Counsel in Merchandising, Marketing and Supply Chain at Walmart Legal. Previously, Walt has served several other companies as in-house counsel, including five years as the General Counsel for Americold Realty Trust/Americold Logistics. This article reflects his personal views and is not intended to necessarily reflect the views of any of his current or past employers. His LinkedIn profile can be accessed here. His other articles published by JD Supra can be accessed here.

JD Supra's In-House Perspective series provides in-house counsel a platform upon which to share their views and thought leadership on issues of the day, including industry news and legal developments, relationships with outside counsel, and law practice matters.]

[Image credits: AboutLeaders and iedp]

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