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How to inject life back into an in-house legal team
When a GC joins an organisation, there’s no guarantee they will inherit a smoothly functioning team. What is guaranteed is that there will be challenges to face. Gavin Tagg, Group Legal Counsel at Adecco UK, explains how he is using a 3-year plan
to revitalise his legal team and make them trusted business partners.
Tell us about your organisation, the legal team and your background...
Adecco is a global recruitment organisation with a head office based in Zurich. Worldwide, we have about 31,000 permanent recruiters and associated staff in our branch networks across 60 countries. In the UK, there are approximately 3,500 colleagues (permanent
employees in our branches and head offices), and at any given time, around 25,000 ‘associates’ (temporary workers on assignment at our clients).
In the UK there are currently 18 people in the legal team across five divisions: Company Secretarial, Commercial Services, Litigation, Employment/Regulatory and International Assignment Services. Each division has a team leader and they all report to
me. I report to the UK CFO with a dotted line to the General Counsel in Zurich.
I started my legal career as a criminal barrister, but realised quickly that it wasn’t for me. I started looking for an in-house role, and my first job in 1999 just happened to be in a recruitment company. I was there for a little over a year, and
then moved to another recruitment company that, after two acquisitions, was eventually bought by Adecco. Just after that final acquisition in 2009, I started a consultancy-based practice, mostly advising the recruitment sector. In July 2013, I came
back to Adecco as Group Legal Counsel.
What were the first challenges you faced when you joined the organisation?
I realised quickly that there was a lot to do and I needed a plan. In different circumstances it could have been a two-year or even a one-year plan, but I concluded that a three-year plan would be more realistic and effective as there was so much to do.
It was a big challenge.
It became quickly obvious to me that there was a lot of disharmony, both internally within the team, and also between the team and the business. It wasn't the team's fault; it was just the way things had degenerated after they had all gone through an
ill-conceived redundancy exercise. The morale in the team was at an all-time low. Adecco participates in the Great Place to Work (GPTW) survey which gives employees the opportunity to rate the company in terms of how much they enjoy working there.
The legal team had taken the survey shortly before I arrived in July 2013, and had given a general approval rating of just 14%. One of the main reasons for this was that the team felt that they were treated poorly and disrespectfully by their colleagues
in the sales and operations teams.
How did you develop and implement your 3-year plan?
It started with a set of ideas as to how we could achieve what we needed. It ended up as our overriding mission statement and principles, plus the strategic pillars detailing how we get there.
I wanted to shift the perception of the legal team as unhelpful and blocking business, to us being seen as trusted business partners. We know that we’re going to be criticised along the way because we still have our jobs to do, but it's about educating
and creating bridges.
To develop the plan I looked at the Great Place to Work survey results. It was a great starting point because it showed exactly where all the really key issues were, as the team perceived them. This helped create a road map of the areas that I needed
to focus on. The very first thing to do was to follow up that survey with a full analysis of the scores and feedback to the team, something that had not been done in previous years. By focussing on the scores that were either below a certain threshold,
or which had dipped compared to the prior year, we could start collectively thinking about practical actions that we could take to ensure improvements in these aspects of their jobs.
We set up a different management structure, and I immediately implemented monthly one-to-one meetings with my direct reports. I also introduced quarterly one-to-one meetings with everyone in the team. Initially this wasn't popular with my middle
managers, as there can sometimes be a perception that if you're talking to someone at the bottom then you're probably inviting criticism about or undermining the middle management. I can understand that, however, I think these quarterly meetings are
vital to demonstrate that I am interested in and care about the needs of everyone in my team, and I've maintained them. I believe that now the department is a happier, more trusting place, the suspicion that people are ‘talking out of turn’
has been eradicated.
We also have a monthly Legal Town Hall meeting involving the whole department. It used to be in the office but I wanted to make it more social. Every month we go to a pub, have our meeting and then stay for a few drinks. There were clearly issues in the
team with people not getting along and it has taken time to unpick that and create a better team spirit.
There's nobody in the team now who doesn't have the right positive attitude. Now, when we recruit, the most important attribute that we look for in a candidate is a willingness to be collaborative and a true team player. We seek people who want to work
hard and put in the extra effort, who will look out for each other, and who derive enjoyment from working in a team. You can be the most intellectually brilliant lawyer in the UK, but if you have a diva mentality then you won’t get a job with
From very early on I wanted to portray a culture of promotion from within, so that people felt they had a career plan at Adecco. This means that people don't feel they're stuck in a role; if they work hard, and when someone decides to move on, they'll
be in the frame. So far I've not had to appoint anyone external to work in a management role, above people already in the organisation. Everyone who currently reports to me has either reported to me from the start, or has been promoted into that role.
We’ve created more SLAs across the legal department divisions. Our aim is not to just meet SLAs but to exceed them. We also now have reporting on KPIs and statistics, so we can track what and how we’re doing.
How did you go out to the business and find out what the business needed?
Firstly, I needed to create bonds and relationships at board level. When I felt comfortable that there was a relationship with the brand directors based on mutual trust and confidence, I could then start to give the difficult messages and where I needed
the directors’ support. In my view it is absolutely essential that you have a very good working knowledge of your internal client’s business before you attempt to engage with them. I've worked in recruitment for my entire career which
makes it a lot easier for me when I'm working with the Adecco board.
In terms of building relationships with the rest of the business, if you’ve got a ‘them and us’ mentality, things won’t get done. When you’ve built a strong relationship built on mutual respect, honesty and shared common
goals, in my experience people will go out of their way to help you. I’ve worked in smaller companies where I was able to get up, walk the floors, talk to people, then we’d go out for a drink and I'd get to know them socially. People don’t
immediately expect that behaviour from their in-house lawyer, but it makes everything so much easier – especially in a company where the sales culture is founded on social interaction and friendships.
How do you encourage good stakeholder management in your team?
There’s no magic formula. First of all, the team needs to be comfortable that I've got their back. When I ask them to forge relationships I will introduce people and get them chatting, but after that it is up to them how they engage. They have to
be proactive and put themselves forward. You need to be getting your face seen or be picking up a phone, not emailing. Many of my team have been working here for a long time, but they still sometimes need a push, because it's a lot safer to sit and
communicate behind a desk and a computer.
The team also needs to be comfortable with their jobs. They need to be confident in what they know and what they can really do for the business before they can go out and create strong business relationships.
Finally, and although this is a cliché, never underestimate the importance of ‘walking a mile in their shoes’. To be a truly valued business partner, you need to know your internal clients and know what drives their behaviour. I often
tell my team: imagine I was to give you a new contract tomorrow, in which I halved your basic salary, and gave you a challenging bonus plan that required you to hit targets if you were going to get paid enough to cover your rent or mortgage. If you
do this, you might understand why it is that there is such a mentality within our sales teams of ‘always be closing’, and why it is so important to get this contract signed ASAP, or those monies recovered before the end of the month.
Is learning and development for the team part of the 3-year plan?
Yes. Previously, we didn’t have anything formal in place but we now have a number of different and improved ways to tackle learning and development. We try to do things internally, including a Lunchtime Learning session once a month where one of
the team delivers a presentation on something topical and it counts as CPD.
I want to encourage constant self-improvement and the development of skills across the whole team. To do this, we must invest in people. The 3-year plan is key to ensuring we create a high-performing team that services the business effectively.
Since I joined we have cut out a lot of unnecessary and obsolete department costs (such as unused subscriptions) and the savings have been ploughed back into the department training budget. The GPTW survey shows, every year, that lawyers place great importance
on the need to keep up-to-date with their knowledge of the law, and if the company pays for external training to maintain that, then this is hugely appreciated.
Part of my plan is to ensure succession planning; after all you could get ‘hit by a bus’ at any time. I need to be comfortable that if that were to happen then there are effective leaders within the team who could step up and also that there
are people who could step into that person's shoes. When you've got a succession plan that goes all the way up to the top, that's when you know that you've cracked it and have got everything you need.
You are approaching the end of your 3-year plan. Are you on track?
I feel that I can look back on the last two and a half years with a lot of satisfaction. The annual Great Place to Work Survey approval rating from my team has jumped from 14% to 63% - clearly the team is a much more contented place these days, but 63%
is still not enough for me and I look forward to seeing this improve even further when the survey is taken again in a few months. One thing I can rely on from my team is honesty, so I know that if the rating is high, this is genuinely felt.
In addition, we issue a twice-yearly ‘Voice of the Customer’ survey which surveys all senior managers across the UK business and asks two key questions in respect of all Central Services departments, as well as allowing free text feedback.
For the Legal team, the questions are (a) “Did the Legal team demonstrate the ability and experience to act as ‘business partners’ to your brand, to help you win or retain business?” and (b) “Has the Legal team proved
that they can be trusted to vigorously fight your corner in the event of any claims/disputes affecting your brand?”. The latest results of this survey have never been higher, with a median score of 8.5 out of 10 given by our professional staffing
sales colleagues in response to question (b), the highest median score across all Central Services. This demonstrates to me that the business really believes that the Legal team are a force to be reckoned with and that we ‘have their back’.
I am confident that over the next six months, with a fully staffed Commercial Services team working efficiently and harmoniously, we can make real inroads into the more proactive metric of proving to be valuable business partners that can help win
and retain business.
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