The lawyer in the room!
Overcoming fixed ideas about you.
If you're new in an in-house legal role, it can come as a surprise to realise that the knowledge and skills you worked so hard to build and develop are not always an instant hit with your non-legal colleagues. Indeed some of them can (sometimes) appear downright unappreciative!
Why is this you may wonder? After all, isn't it your role to advise and support them in achieving their goals and objectives? Of course, you'll point out when you think a course of action is ill-advised, but you want to help, not hinder.
The first thing to realise is that it's not personal. Those colleagues who are less enthusiastic about your involvement may be suspicious because they've had a less than positive experience of lawyers in the past – business or personal – or because they misunderstand the role of the in-house lawyer, because it's never been articulated in a way that makes sense to them.
The second point is that you can definitely do something about it. Let's consider some measures you can take to put yourself (and all in-house lawyers) in a better light.
Develop your communication styleWhether you're speaking or writing, use language that everyone understands and that makes your points clearly and unequivocally. You can't afford to be thought of as a quirky throwback, so ditch archaic phrases and language wherever you can. If your colleagues can't understand what you're saying, you're on the back foot from the start.
All organisations have their own acronyms and 'house style'. While not slavishly following fashion for the sake of it, it will help if you communicate in this style. It signals that you're part of the culture of the organisation and not a critical observer.
Lawyers take pride in the clarity of their written advice. In an in-house context this means keeping written advice and reports brief and to the point, using short sentences, headings and bullet points, and putting your advice/conclusions/options up front.
Lawyers sometimes argue that the law is complex and cannot always be explained quickly in plain language. It's true that it can be complex, but a key skill of the in-house lawyer is the ability to explain legal issues and risks in a way that colleagues can understand and act on. This comes naturally to very few so time and effort spent honing this skill will pay dividends.
Although written communications are important, all in-house lawyers know that many interactions are verbal. Where this occurs in a formal setting, you need to be on your mettle by getting your points across clearly and concisely. No matter how well-researched and knowledgeable you are about the topic, it's vital that you can articulate the key points and issues. The better you can do this the more valued your input will be. Good presentation skills are well worth developing as they underpin the ability to effectively inform, persuade and influence others.
Accentuate the positive
One reason why lawyers' input is sometimes treated suspiciously is where it's considered too cautious or unduly negative. Some perceive that lawyers highlight and exaggerate the downside of any new venture or project. And this is problematic if colleagues consequently avoid legal input when they really should not. There are often three causes of this suspicion:-
- A lack of organisational content in legal advice. This may well not be the lawyer's fault as the legal team may not be close enough to their operational colleagues to know how it is for them. Consequently, it can look to those colleagues as though the lawyer is dealing with abstracts rather than grappling with solutions to real organisational issues.
- Because of the way it's said. This links to the communication point, but it's usually unhelpful to simply emphasise why something is risky or won’t work. This is definitely not to say that legal problems should not be clearly identified and, if necessary, strong advice given about the implications of a particular course of action. Rather, this is about providing balance and context given that, mostly, it's about finding the best way of doing something given the legal framework, rather than not doing it all.
- ecause of a lack of suggested solutions. The lawyer's skill is in identifying, and explaining, the relevant legal issues/risks and how they apply. But you need to also say what can be done about it. This doesn't mean having a perfect solution ready for delivery. It does mean being involved in a dialogue with colleagues to find solutions that work and being prepared to think creatively, testing options against the legal framework and the organisation's tolerance for risk in relation to the particular area of activity.
Be a good relation
Just as being a good communicator and a problem solver are key attributes for the modern in-house lawyer, so you also need to be good at building, and maintaining, relationships.
What's involved? First, you need to be interested in what's going on in your organisation. You're not a disinterested observer. You’re a vital part of what makes it successful. Take time to understand how it works, its strategy and direction and the key decision makers and processes.
Second, you need to be a networker. Most organisations get things done through both formal and informal channels and the latter are certainly important. Being seen as a collaborator and team player are key to getting the ear of your colleagues in order to understand what's coming down the turnpike and in getting across the 'legal view' in a more informal setting.
Third, you need to be a listener. Most lawyers love to discuss and give their view. Learning to listen first and then collaborate in finding solutions can require a bit of a mind shift. You don't have to have an instant answer to every issue. Rather, realise that your colleagues may value your ability to listen calmly, impartially and uncritically to their issues. If you work at this, you'll find that you're much in demand.
Finally, don't forget to schedule catch ups with key colleagues – inside or outside the office. Having a regular meeting is a good way to keep in touch and up to date.
Understand and feedback
There's really no excuse for in-house lawyers not understanding their own organisation in detail. This includes its reports, communications, strategy and financial performance. It doesn't work to opt out of certain aspects of the life of the organisation – for example, in relation to its financial well-being.
All in-house lawyers need a good grounding in the workings of the organisation and it's worth devoting time and energy to keeping abreast of these.
It's also important to be familiar with the business, regulatory and political environment. Good relations with legal and other counterparts in stakeholder and partner organisations (including external advisers) can play a vital role here as can attending relevant business and social events. Make sure you're getting good business intelligence to inform your legal advice and to facilitate horizon scanning. It plays well with colleagues to know that you're actively involved in looking at themes emerging from the issues you see and in reviewing potential changes and planning for how these might impact what you, and they, do.
Don't forget to feedback. The legal team is a repository for a good deal of information from across the organisation – and beyond. Don't assume that your colleagues know all this. Finding ways to collate and distribute knowledge should be a key objective of the team and is a key aspect of the legal team's value to the organisation.
The perception of lawyers as (overly) cautious and critical can stem from a lack of understanding about what your role is in relation to a particular activity. So, rather than just piling in with your detailed thoughts and advice as soon as a new matter arises, it usually pays to set the framework and ground rules for what your involvement will be. For example, if you're a member of a project team, it's helpful to clarify the legal and governance issues you'll be looking at and perhaps when you need to look at them. This helps the project team to know how best to use your skills and to contextualise your input. This is a useful way to manage expectations all round.
It's also useful to make sure you understand the context of a request for legal advice/input. Sometimes a request can hit your in-tray with little background detail. Here, it's often useful to spend time understanding why and how the issue has arisen. Sometimes this obviates the need for any legal input or it may result in you dealing with a different aspect of the issue altogether.
Establishing ground rules
Finally, don't forget to establish some ground rules. While many interactions in organisations are informal, you need to be clear when you are advising 'on the record' and when your discussions are about understanding the issues and testing the waters. Essentially, you need to avoid the situation where a 'coffee machine discussion' ends up being reported as representing 'legal's view' on a complex issue which you really need to consider in more detail. So, don't be afraid to slow the pace if you feel you're being pushed for a quick response where one is inadvisable. And don't forget also that it's fine not to have an instant answer for every legal issue that arises and to sometimes say No. Being an accessible partner to business colleagues definitely does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do! But being clear about your concerns and explaining these in a measured way (understanding the operational context) will help build trust and respect.
Surprising as it may be, in-house lawyers are not always universally understood or appreciated. But you can influence this by engaging with your colleagues so that they better understand what you're there to do and how this supports them, and the organisation, in meeting its objectives and obligations.
You can do this by getting involved in the business (and life), of the organisation; by helping colleagues to understand your role and where and how you can really add value; and by communicating in a way that they can understand and act on. This can not only change perceptions but also lead to a real appreciation of the contribution that lawyers can, and do, make to their organisations.