Authored by: Aliya Ramji, director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc., and 2016 recipient of an ACC’s Top 10 30-Somethings Award.

This article was published as part of ACC’s “Ask Aliya” column for lawyers who are the first legal hire at their company and need advice from an in-house lawyer who has been there before.

Question:

I work for a multinational corporation and manage the legal department. Our department is spread across multiple jurisdictions. I am currently in Mexico and I have two lawyers based in the United States, one in Canada, one in Germany, and someone in Hong Kong. We frequently travel to work and collaborate with team members in different jurisdictions but nothing is as effective as co-location. Do you have any advice on how to manage a legal team in multiple jurisdictions?

Answer:

Managing a team in a single location is already challenging, so it’s commendable that you are managing across multiple locations. The good news is, managing a legal team remotely is no different than managing any other team across locations. Of course, the laws will be different, but how you work with the lawyers, as a manager should be similar to how a non-lawyer would manage.

It’s important that the team feels like it is a cohesive unit. This means that you should find ways for your team of lawyers to collaborate. You may not be able to review agreements together, but you can meet often to bounce ideas off of one another and force those “hallway” interactions that are lacking when your team is in multiple locations. In our office, we have telepresence robot to give remote employees a physical presence at headquarters.

From a management perspective, here are some of the things I have learned over the years:

  1. Stay connected with employees in all jurisdictions. Ensure that individuals who are in satellite offices feel as supported as they would if they were at headquarters (or wherever the legal team is based). This means that you need to be in constant communication with the local teams. Check in with them at least weekly to ensure that their objectives are clearly defined and in tune with the mission of the legal department and the company’s overall vision.  
  2. Be comfortable delegating. Sometimes larger or localized projects require the attention of certain members of the team. You’ll have to rely on certain individuals, especially those with particular areas of expertise (e.g., an international IP specialist or a customs and trade law specialist). Empower these individuals. It takes a while to build trust between teammates and managers, but once that trust is there, you can avoid micromanaging people.  
  3. Balance your company and team culture with the local culture. Employees will be influenced by the company-wide culture and the local business culture. A simple example is the difference in business attire between New York and Los Angeles: New York requires very corporate business attire while Los Angeles is more relaxed. As a result, you’ll have to strike a balance between the local dress code and that of the business. Allow your local teams to have the flexibility to strike that balance and determine what is necessary and important for them.  
  4. Outline working and non-working hours. Your team is all in different time zones, and though each individual may want to determine their own working hours, you will need to ensure that some of those times overlap across jurisdictions. As a result, someone in Asia or North America may have to work early or late once a week to ensure you can have team meetings. The corollary is that employees in different offices should not be responsible for responding to emails and calls at all hours of the day. Respect their non-working hours.

Managing any team can be challenging at times and a remote team is no different. The added challenge of managing remotely will require you to be even more aware of the team’s needs and abilities. Empower your team and ensure that they have an ear to the ground on the legal challenges and requirements of their local offices.

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