Facing top table preconceptions about you

This article considers the general preconceptions and prejudices that colleagues at a senior executive level (the 'top table') of a business are likely to have of you as their legal adviser. You’ll need to overcome these preconceptions to be effective in your role, so we also consider ways that you can start to achieve this.

Being an effective in-house counsel requires a robust relationship with the senior executives who sit at the top table of your organisation. Being aware of any preconceptions held against you, however unfair or unjustified, will make you well placed to overcome them and develop your internal relationships.

Busting the myths

Reaching your organisation’s senior executive level, or top table, is the pinnacle of the general counsel career path. However, there may be colleagues at that table who harbour negative preconceptions about you.

To overcome these preconceptions, you’ll need to understand these colleagues and why they hold prejudices.

This gets easier over time. If you’re a good listener, these people’s experiences of – and attitudes towards – lawyers will become apparent during your dealings with them.

In most large organisations, the top table, statistically, comprises males of a certain generation with long business experience. They’re human beings, so view the world and the people around them, including their lawyers, through a prism of personal experiences and beliefs.

A person’s age and the industry they work in often provide clues as to how they’re likely to perceive the legal profession. A look at someone’s LinkedIn profile or biography in an annual report or prospectus may reveal a history that signifies dealings with the profession. People involved in corporate finance transactions, disputes, IP and patents or property, for example, will all have worked with (or against) lawyers at some point in their careers.

Think carefully about the people around your top table. Do your research, put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine how they see you.

Building any relationship takes time, so while you're getting to know your colleagues better, let's consider some typical preconceptions senior management may have of you as their legal adviser:

  • You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law. This is the assumption that you know not just the law affecting the business or the topic under discussion, but every single law ever passed in the jurisdiction, and possibly others. Don't be daunted by this. Be flattered. It’s a nicer problem than being seen as not knowing the law. However, know your limitations and be frank when someone requests off-the-cuff advice about something beyond your specialism. Deferring to your colleagues or external counsel is entirely reasonable and often expected in a boardroom. Staying confident when you don't know the answer is just as important as when you do.
  • You’re just a support service. People holding this view will see you as a cost to the business rather than a revenue-producing asset. And like any cost, you need to be justified. Deal with these people by presenting your advice in terms of added value whenever possible. Has litigation saved you from a more costly exposure? Has legal advice on structuring a contract bolstered the top line? The top table is the ideal place to subtly push this value added message so you and your team become known as protectors of the business and its revenue.
  • You’re the sales prevention force. Some at the top table, particularly those wearing a sales or marketing hat, may think you’re there to prevent the business from succeeding. You’re seen as an inhibitor to business objectives, someone who puts laws or legal advice in the way of a sale or proposed path, possibly to prove your worth. Of course, a good in-house counsel will be commercial and only prevent a sale if the risk is disproportionate or the law is broken as a consequence. By supplementing your advice with a range of options and commercially driven conclusions, you’ll win these people over. Then, if you really need to prevent the business doing something, you’ll be able to explain the clear and serious reasons why.
  • You’re not financially literate. Expect any discussion on numbers not to include you initially, even if it relates to the advice you are giving. The only way to overcome this preconception is to make a concerted effort to understand the numbers from the perspective of the business as a whole and the matter being discussed. If you can articulate your legal advice with fluency and explain the financial consequences of a given option, you’ll soon be a welcome participant in any discussion at the top table.
  • You don't understand the engine room of the business. The engine room, so the narrative goes, is the domain of industry experts, not lawyers. However, all good in-house lawyers know that legal advice without context is meaningless. So, if you can hold a technical conversation with an engineer, explain patents in an elevator conversation, talk with a sales person about their sales funnel, analyse supply chain logistics with procurement or discuss the underlying business infrastructure with new starters, you’ll lay this preconception to rest. And remember, at board level there are many people (particularly non-executive directors), who will know far less than you, operationally. Your role gives you a broader across the business than most.
  • You’re not strategic. Instead, you’re a reactive task driven machine who, like a firefighter, waits for the distress call and reacts to events after they’ve happened. This comes with the territory but the proof of your maturity is when you can take part in a strategic discussion outside your functional expertise at the top table. This comes with experience, however, if you attend the top table meetings, you’ll see how strategy develops, evolves and is executed and you’ll get to know it inside out. Framing advice around strategic objectives will also help you overcome this preconception.
  • You’re not commercially driven. Some at the top table may have been scarred in their careers by expensive external lawyers earning lots of fees with no skin in the game. This old-fashioned prejudice still lives on. Tackle it head on by being attuned to financial, strategic and commercial drivers. This way, you’ll be seen as performing a healthy risk check and analysis, particularly on bids and sales opportunities and giving options where the way forward is not clear cut from a legal perspective.
  • You’re unduly cautious. The top table, particularly people in finance, often see things in black and white with no shades of grey in between. Lawyers know life is not that simple. For example, a collective guffaw is often heard when external litigation lawyers or barristers assess what looks like a convincing case as having a 60/40 chance of success. The role of in-house counsel is to couch that prediction in business speak. Also, being comfortable making decisions will alleviate any misconception that you’re too risk averse to be a ‘real’ business person.

Clearly, we’re generalising here. Your own top table will probably have preconceptions of you more specific to the industry and each individual’s circumstances and backgrounds. Over time, common themes emerge and make it easier for you to overcome them.

If you get the chance, ask your top table colleagues 'what is your view on lawyers?' or 'what in your mind makes a great lawyer?' Their answers could provide you with a rich seam of information on the preconceptions you will need to overcome.

Conclusion

Prejudices and preconceptions come with the territory when you work as an in-house lawyer. However, your relationships with senior executives are critical, so you may have to work hard to overcome any unfair attitudes they have towards you. Get to know these people, put yourself in their shoes, and develop your relationship to flush out negative impressions. If you can be seen and heard as a pragmatic, commercial, financially astute lawyer constantly aware of strategic goals in an operational business context, you’ll change these preconceptions - not just at a senior executive level but across the whole business.