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Chief legal officers and leadership

The importance of leadership skills for lawyers

Traditionally, corporate counsel have focused on building strong legal skills. Today, demonstrating strong corporate counsel leadership also means engaging employees, building relationships, and inspiring high performance. How are today’s chief legal officers doing with these new nontechnical responsibilities? We consulted the data to find out.

Redefining corporate counsel leadership

Expectations of corporate legal departments continue to change. Technical legal expertise alone is no longer sufficient for chief legal officers to address resource constraints, demands for strategic advice to stakeholders across the enterprise, and the steady march of digital transformation. To be more effective leaders in this environment, chief legal officers and their leadership teams need to engage their legal teams in ways that elevate their contribution and value to the enterprise. But what leadership skills will help them do that, and how do legal leaders measure up?

The gap between existing and future legal leadership capabilities

Deloitte analysis1 of legal executive data focusing on 16 leadership competencies shows that in-house lawyers score above average on overall leadership effectiveness, but lower than average on employee engagement. This gap is wider for legal leaders than for leaders in other disciplines.

For the five industries that score highest in overall leadership competency, legal has the largest gap between overall leadership score and employee engagement index score. Overall, of the 25 industries for which data is available, nine have a negative differential, and only legal has a double-digit negative differential—more than twice the next highest negative differential of 7.2 (Scores are based on a scale of 1–100.)

According to the data, the top five leadership competencies for in-house lawyers are:

  • Technical/professional expertise
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues
  • Displays high integrity and honesty
  • Takes initiative
  • Develops strategic perspective

Lawyers did not score as well in six competencies that are central to effective employee engagement:

  • Establishes stretch goals
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Builds relationships
  • Connects group to the outside world
  • Inspires and motivates others to high performance
  • Develops others

These findings suggest that generally lawyers are lagging, or are at best mediocre, in their ability to connect with their direct and indirect reports, as well as other stakeholders across the enterprise—a key leadership quality as the future of legal unfolds.

Moreover, corporate lawyers were rated less favorably by their direct reports than by their managers and peers in all 16 leadership competencies. This indicates a disconnect between the way legal leadership performance is experienced by the people lawyers manage and how it is perceived by those who observe legal leaders.

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Considerations to help close the gap

To help reduce the gap between where corporate lawyers excel today and where they will be expected to in the future, we’ll take a look at three areas: skill development, meaning and purpose, and learning and development.

Closing thoughts

The notion of rapid change being all around us may seem a little jaded, yet when it comes to corporate legal leadership, it’s never been more true. Many of the traditional demands of the business on the legal department are still there. But other new, and in some cases more urgent, demands are constantly emerging and capturing organizations’ attention and resources.

The legal leadership skills of yesterday are not enough to respond to these demands, much less anticipate them in the way needed going forward. The gap is already wide, and it’s getting wider every day.

Instead, business should strive to evolve by expanding and improving the way legal departments are led. By taking a fresh look at employee engagement skills, finding new ways to instill meaning and purpose into the work employees perform, and creating new opportunities for their lifelong learning and development, the path becomes clearer to help prepare lawyers and their teams for the future of legal.

Man thinking


1 Zenger Folkman, Extraordinary Leader data from 122,767 participating executives as of October 2018

2 Ibid.

3 Interviews conducted by Deloitte Chief Legal Officer Program, October 2017–October 2019

4 Deloitte Development LLC, From employee experience to human experience: Putting meaning back into work, April 2019

5 Deloitte Development LLC, 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, April 2019

6 Learning in the flow of life: 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte Development LLC, April 2019

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Interviews conducted by Deloitte Chief Legal Officer Program, October 2017–October 2019

10 Deloitte Development LLC, Talent mobility: Winning the war on the home front: 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, April 2019

11 Deloitte Development LLC, Rewriting the rules for the digital age: 2017 Global Human Capital Trends, February 2017

12 Deloitte Development LLC, What is the future of work? Redefining work, workforces, and workplaces, April 2019

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