The discussion of leadership in the legal department is ongoing, as general counsel increasingly find themselves sitting at the table, and involved in making difficult business decisions. But the process is not as straightforward as it may seem. Existing leadership in the legal department must look closely at the lawyers on their team and help them determine their own strengths and weaknesses. Those same leaders must be willing push their direct reports until their own preformance is challenged by the strong lawyers on their team.

These are among the philosophies espoused by Scott D. Chaplin, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at ATK, a company in the global aerospace, defense and commercial products space. He sees the need for leadership development on his team because he feels there is a lack of attention on these skills for lawyers in the course of their training. “Most other executives in a company through business school or other areas get leadership training,” he says, “but law school and conferences don’t focus on leadership.” 

When looking at his team, Chaplin sees a common divide between technicians and leaders. Both are valuable, he says, but he also feels that is important to separate the two. At this year’s SuperConference, Chaplin shared a story about a member of his team who was a superb legal technician but who, by his own admission, “hated people.” Chaplin saw this as a learning experience for himself.

Often, if lawyers are good technicians, they are thrust into leadership roles, but that should not necessarily be the case, Chaplin says. “They are separate skills sets,” he explains. “Being a technician can be a lonely job, mastering skills done on your own. Mastering our craft as a technician can be done in a silent, solo silo, but leadership requires interaction and a different skill set.” Therefore, the best technicians might not make the best leaders, but each skill set is valuable to the overall legal team. These two types of lawyers can also complement each other and work together to handle all aspects of a legal matter.

For those lawyers who wish to hone their leadership abilities and who have the right skill set, workshops and activities can prove useful. Chaplin credits Mark DeYoung, CEO and president of ATK for connecting with the Flippen Group, a leadership organization that, interestingly enough, works primarily with athletes and coaches, though the company does have a business division. DeYoung’s idea was to look at leadership from a completely different angle, and, according to Chaplin, “the results have been astounding.” 

The training is behavioral-based and very personal, according to Chaplin. Participants are forced to reflect on their personal behavioral attributes and reflect on the idea of leadership. Chaplin says he was skeptical at first, unsure as to how his personal qualities could impact his job, but after participating in the program, he sees its value. The program worked for the C-level executives at ATK, and has now worked its way down to the legal department with “great results for me and my staff, elevating our leadership skills,” says Chaplin. 

At SuperConference, Chaplin also spoke of his philosophy of leadership, noting the concept of being “pushed out of your chair.” Encouraging members of his team to grow until they are ready to ascend to the next level nets positive results, he says, all the way up to the GC chair. He wants his DGCs to push against him, knowing that, when his deputy GC is ready to be a GC, Chaplin himself will face a choice: either get up from his own chair and move elsewhere, or do everything in his power to help find a GC chair for his team member to fill somewhere else. “We all need to be challenged if we want to be great leaders,” he explains. “We talk about this in our leadership meetings.” He asks the members of his team if they are close to being pushed out of their chairs, and if so, he is ready to help them move on, which, he says, can be a good thing. “We don’t have to keep everyone forever, a fresh perspective is good for business if no one is out of work. I wish there was more dialogue about that.”


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