Part 3: Legal Skills - The Board, strategy, influence and crisis
The value of legal skills in an organisation
It is often felt that the skills a lawyer brings to an organisation are misunderstood and undervalued. This three-part series looks at the value of legal skills in an organisation, and the influence which you can bring to the table as a lawyer.
The first article in the series, The Lawyer: Value, Challenge and Opportunity looks at why legal skills may be underrated - and at the challenges and opportunity that presents. The second article, The Law: Pervasion, Proactivity and Boundaries examines the way law pervades all that the organisation does, and the options that open up for the lawyer to be proactive. This third article, Legal Skills: The Board, Strategy, Influence and Crisis examines the value of legal skills – at the board, to the organisation’s strategic direction, and in times of crisis, highlighting opportunities for the lawyer to play a decisive role in influencing the direction of the organisation.
In the first two articles in this series, we have identified that a lawyer’s skills marry the technical, detailed study of the law and its implications with a range of broader learnings. Commercial awareness, people skills, communication, attention to detail, research and analysis, and resilience and problem solving are all things which can be said to be needed at Board level, but applied with the differentiated focus of a legal mind. How can they be demonstrated and integrated at Board level?
For the lawyer’s value to the organisation to be heard and appreciated by the Board, it is important to consider what you say, and how. There are a number of techniques:
- Demonstrating relevance. The law is all-pervasive. Use the proactive strategies suggested in the second article in this series [link] to ensure that the core issues – and strategic implications – are aired and understood by the Board.
- Defining the Board agenda. In many cases the General Counsel may also be Company Secretary, and even if not, is often well-placed to define the Board agenda. The preparation of a detailed, yearly, schedule is an opportunity to bring legal and compliance issues to the Board’s attention.
- Creating interactions with the Board. Increasing law and regulation, governance, liability and personal risk are all things which should concern the Board. Each of them creates an opportunity for interaction with the Board – from giving or arranging specialist briefings on new law or governance matters, to updating the Board on the progress of litigation, and providing individual one-to-one briefings with directors on their liability and personal duties.
- Ensuring that legal is visible to the Board. In many organisations, the regular Board sequence includes operational briefings which update directors on the progress of the business, as well as giving the Board opportunity to see – and assess – individuals within the team. There is every reason to ensure that the legal team is also given that visibility.
Almost every organisation will have a formal strategy – and a formal process to define, review, and adopt it every year. The lawyer should be part of that process – and should bring to bear the outcomes from the proactive work considered in the second article in this series. For example, what are the historical liabilities which may impact the organisation – can they be dealt with by a change in structure? What new trends could threaten the business – and what new opportunities have you identified which could benefit it?
Most strategy processes will adopt a formalised analysis of some kind – often as simple as a PESTEL analysis, identifying the issues impacting the organisation by looking at the political, economic, social and other aspects. [link to further reading]. With the L of PESTEL representing legal, clearly law must be considered in the process and the need for that input presents a vital opportunity for the legal team.
To realise the value of the lawyer’s skills, it is important to ensure that law is not simply seen as a backward-focused, transactional function, but as something which is of relevance and significance in the future development of the organisation.
While senior lawyers in an organisation may well have a degree of position-related power – perhaps the power to stop an activity if it appears to be illegal – almost every other aspect of the role must be achieved through influence. That is as true at Board level as it is in other levels of the organisation.
Lawyers will almost certainly learn how to marshal, order, and present their arguments and evidence – and will be able to construct a detailed and compelling rationale. However, it is possible that the context required in an organisation is quite different from that required in the legal environment – and will also differ markedly depending on the culture, history and circumstances of particular organisations.
There are some techniques which may help:
- Understanding the audience. It is critical to research and understand as much as possible about the members of your audience. Does a particular board member have an expertise in the matter concerned? Has a similar problem arisen in the past – either in your organisation or elsewhere – which you can reference? Does an organisation with which you share a non-executive director have a similar issue – and how has it dealt with it?
- Speaking the same language. If your organisation has a set style or format for presenting materials to the Board, use it. If an executive summary is required, set out the key facts – and the actions recommended or required – in that. Remember that a board paper or presentation is not a memorandum of advice. A board will want to understand what you think they should do, and why, as well as what the law is.
- Follow the rules. If your organisation has a set means and timescale for delivering Board papers, follow it. Papers which arrive late, incomplete or in an unexpected format may not be able to be read in time – or may irritate the audience. Neither is helpful.
- Engaging expected routes of influence. Adopt a policy of ‘no surprises.’ Be clear on the outcome you want – or at least expect – out of an engagement with the Board, and help them to reach it. Ensure you have your functional director, if there is one, onside – followed by your Chief Executive and your Board Chair. It is likely you do not enjoy being put on the spot, and neither will they.
- Answering likely questions. Do all you can to anticipate questions which may be asked – it will show that you have thought through the position.
Some of these techniques may seem obvious, but each one will help to integrate you and your role at Board level, to gain acceptance, and to build your influence and power in the organisation.
There will be a legal aspect to almost every crisis affecting an organisation. It follows that the lawyer should be involved in planning for, dealing with, and reviewing the impact of any crisis affecting the organisation. There is further guidance in Leadership during a crisis [link] but you should particularly ensure:
- that you are part of the crisis leadership team;
- that you reassess and re-prioritise what you and your team do so that everything is focused around the things that matter, and
- that you understand that the way in which you behave with others, and the trust and respect which is engendered, will colour the perspective in which you and your team are seen in the organisation.
It will be appreciated from the three articles in this series that the skills which a lawyer brings to the top table can be of great value to an organisation. However, there is no inalienable right to be heard, and a real risk that you will be seen only as an adviser or a functional resource.
It is hoped that the techniques and suggestions outlined in the series will help you to demonstrate and to realise your full value, and to earn your rightful place at the top table. Some key suggestions you may wish to adopt are:
- Understand the business and its environment. You must earn the right to the top table through learning about the business, the issues it faces, the factors which influence and challenge it – and understanding how people within the business feel about them.
- Manage your relationships. You must manage your relationships across the organisation, and beyond, as assiduously as you manage your work. Remember that they are two-way; you are not simply seeking to get something out of your contacts, but demonstrating that you are available to help, to guide, and to be involved.
- Develop and enhance your profile. One criticism of legal teams is sometimes that their independence is seen as aloofness. Most organisations offer opportunities to be involved in development programmes, in cross-group projects, in conferencing or strategy teams. Use them.
- Interact with the Board. Finally, bear in mind that it is easier to be valued and to develop your role from a position of strength – of being known to the Board and senior colleagues – than from one of being simply a name, or worse still, a job title, somewhere in the organisation. Make – and use – opportunities to meet them; provide relevant and timely briefings before they get them from outside sources; show that you are looking after their interests, and be responsive and proactive.
To read the next article titled 'Strategy and business planning - typical corporate processes' click here.