Overcoming preconceptions about you

This article considers, in detail, ways to overcome these preconceptions and be effective in your role.

Being an effective in-house counsel means having a robust relationship with the senior executives at the top table of your organisation. Understanding their preconceptions against you, however unfair or unjustified, and having a plan to overcome them is critical to the success of your role.

Getting the top table onside

In "Facing top table preconceptions about you", we looked at some of the prejudices senior managers hold against in-house lawyers.

Let's recap:

  • You have an encyclopedic knowledge of the law (when, in fact, you have a good grasp of the law that applies to your organisation and rely heavily on external counsel);
  • You’re just a support service and a cost to the organisation rather than a revenue-producing asset;
  • You’re the sales prevention force, putting clever laws or legal advice in the way of a sale or proposed path, possibly to prove your worth;
  • You’re not financially literate;
  • You don't understand the engine room of the business because it’s the domain of industry experts, not lawyers;
  • You’re not strategic, you’re a reactive task driven machine;
  • You’re not commercially driven;
  • You’re unduly cautious.

In the previous article, we looked briefly at ways to tackle these preconceptions. Let’s now take a more detailed approach.

Continuously develop your relationships

Unfair preconceptions of you will lessen over time. Until that happens, remember that it’s human nature to fear the unknown. Your top table colleagues can’t help but be slightly suspicious, especially when you’re new to the group.

Your success will depend on how quickly you develop relationships, earn your colleagues’ trust and become a respected voice on business matters as well as a trusted legal adviser. See this as an evolution rather than a quick fix, especially if preconceptions are ingrained.

Here are some ways to develop your key relationships:

  • From the beginning, spend as much quality time as you can with your top table colleagues. Remember, some will be more important that others, so prioritise accordingly. Your executive colleagues will probably be spread far and wide across the organisation, possibly across the world, on any given day. Think about how you can maximise ‘face time' outside of scheduled meetings. Can you and your team hot desk near the CEO, CFO or any other chief officer when you’re in the same office?
  • Look for appropriate out-of-hours functions or gatherings you can attend with your top table colleagues, such as seminars or supplier and customer visits. Getting to know someone is much easier outside a formal environment like the boardroom. PAs know everything and control most things in their boss' life so ask them for dates and build a good rapport with them - as well as being the right thing to do anyway it will pay dividends at some point in the future in ways that you cannot yet anticipate;
  • Lead business initiatives outside your functional remit. Even better, proactively lead initiatives arising from yours or your team's ideas that enhance value and align with strategy. Be careful about how much time you commit to these and identify any potential conflicts with other departments. Always discuss your ideas with others first and, if appropriate, get any necessary approval from the top table before leaping in. You’ll need to plan this carefully, but it’s well worth it. People will soon see you as a genuine business leader who is attuned to the strategic interests of the business and not just a lawyer who reacts to instructions. It will also force you to link up with others across the top table, including subject matter experts;
  • Assume a commercial role. Contract management, procurement and other commercial negotiation roles are a close fit with the legal team. Maybe there’s a business case to save money or reduce headcount by folding them into the legal team? Creating and taking such opportunities will again extend your leadership role beyond that of a lawyer who leads a narrow function. Be careful to manage conflicts here, as commercial aims don’t always align with legal risk, especially if there’s pressure to make a sale;
  • Be pragmatic. Rare is the in-house lawyer who’s not warmly regarded by the business for being pragmatic. This mindset will help allay unfair preconceptions of you. And your colleagues will see you as a problem-solver with the commercial interests of the business at heart; and
  • Learn how to understand numbers generally - not just the management accounts but also percentage,proportions (i.e. when is 5% a big change and when is it trivial), KPIs, how numbers are used and spoken about in the business. (It also helps to know which of your peers are more or less numerate - there will be some people who are sometimes or always "bluffing" about their numeracy in the room!)

Relationships are not static, so you’ll need to develop your rapport with your top table colleagues continuously and then maintain it carefully. The good news is it gets easier over time.

Raise your profile

Build your profile across the business so the top table and other colleagues see you as a genuine business leader. Be one of them, not just the lawyer. Ask yourself if someone outside your team would see you, first and foremost, as a lawyer or as a member of the executive team? Strive for the latter. If the business thinks this, so will your top table colleagues. Be the great commercial adviser, colleague and support to your peers - who also happens to do law.

Using these techniques to develop your relationships will also help you raise your profile and personal brand as a leader. Here are some further ideas:

  • Speak at company functions and offsite events, especially on non-legal topics. Use your legal knowledge and experience to bring a unique angle to topics outside the law;
  • Get involved in, or lead, pro bono initiatives. Doing your bit for corporate social responsibility will make your team an attractive place for work experience students and other potential recruits;
  • Become a mentor. Don't be shy to take on employees from difficult directorates. While respecting confidences, you’ll learn a lot about other teams and leaders from actively listening to mentorees;
  • Champion the business’ values and find ways to bring them to life;
  • Shout out loud about your successes. Legal functions tend to be the inverse of sales teams when it comes to self-promotion and celebrating successes. Don't confine yourself to closing big projects. Think about how negotiations and compliance have saved money where competitors have tripped up. Tell your top table colleagues and reward or acknowledge efforts. Do a deal with a top table colleague to thank each other's team personally on a joint success; and
  • Show your face in a regional office if the opportunity presents itself during international trips.

Remember to include your team and external advisers when raising your profile. You’ll want them to be respected at the top table and be seen as a valuable part of the function you lead. If you take your external counsel into the boardroom, consider the attendees and brief them in advance. Find a balance between a client relationship partner who is silky smooth on the people side but possibly lacking technically – and vice versa. Recognise that relationship visits for external counsel are very different to meetings in the boardroom where pithy opinions for senior management to act on are the main items on the agenda.

Keep understanding the business

Never quench your thirst for knowledge about the organisation. The more you know about its business and its people, the better you’ll be at holding your own at the top table. Others will soon realise you know as much about the organisation as they do. In fact, as yours is a role that straddles many areas, your knowledge across multiple business units may well be superior to that of your top table colleagues. Make maximum use of this unique facet of the in-house lawyer role.

The foundation of your knowledge should be an understanding of the underlying numbers. Financial literacy is essential to business conversations at the top table. After all, numbers and finance underpin strategy, business cases, accounts, budgets and most big agenda items that determine the business' shape and direction. Stay close to your finance colleagues.

If you need help understanding finance, there are several courses that help lawyers understand accounts and numbers. 

If you can, take ownership of a profit and loss account. This will help you understand finance and far exceed what you’ll learn solely from departmental budget ownership.

Finally, get out and about with the organisation whenever you can and learn about its operational as well as strategic side. Don't just focus on those areas with a close relationship to the legal team. Get to know engineers and technical experts, too. With a breadth and depth of knowledge, you’ll find you can discuss, and question, a wide range of matters at the top table.

Conclusion

Overcoming preconceptions and prejudices at the top table is, in many respects, about your development and graduation from a functional leader to a genuine business leader.

Preconceptions will be both fair and unfair. They come with the territory of being the organisation's most senior counsel. Recognising these preconceptions is important, but that's the easy part. Overcoming them will be more difficult, and will take time and effort. By continually developing key relationships, building your profile and working hard to understand the organisation, you’ll see these preconceptions and prejudices gradually disappear.

That said, be ready to call out any unfair prejudices that don’t fade over time. Whether you deal with it publicly or privately, challenging unfair attitudes is part of being a genuine business leader around the top table. It’ll earn you respect.