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.
This first article in the series looks at why legal skills may be underrated - and conversely 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. The 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. Each article will conclude with some suggestions for individual development.
Prospects, the Higher Education sector’s primary resource for graduate employment, spells out seven key skills which define a lawyer, and which a lawyer brings to a successful career –
- commercial awareness,
- people skills,
- attention to detail,
- research and analysis,
- resilience, and
- problem solving.
Tellingly, this list of skills does not include technical legal expertise. That expertise is taken as a given. Although the training and development of most lawyers will include elements of broader management awareness, typically it will focus almost exclusively on increasing and deepening specialist knowledge of a particular field – knowing ‘more and more’ about ‘less and less.’ In so doing, it plays to the strength of what might be seen as the typical legal personality type, in which individuals who are drawn to the law pay great attention to detail, and thrive when they are able to apply that detail to particular sets of facts, or to individual hypothetical situations.
The lawyer will often feel that the value they bring to the organisation is technical. They see the law as both a shield and a sword – and that their specialist knowledge of the law allows the organisation to protect and defend itself from threat, while at the same time ensuring that its products and services are legally compliant, and meet new regulation as it is introduced. The lawyer will also see that they facilitate the complex transactions which are the lifeblood of commerce.
All that is true: but equally there is a risk that much of that technical knowledge is becoming commoditised. In many cases it can be accessed from law firms, alternative legal suppliers and the Big 4. It may increasingly be available through technology.
Drawing comparison to the position of other technical expertise in organisations, for example finance, HR or IT, the last 20 years have seen comparable functionality outsourced to specialist providers. Organisations have brought in specialist providers to deal with what some may see – fairly or otherwise – as the ‘plumbing,’ Unless specific expertise is directly relevant to what the organisation delivers to its customers, the functional specialists transition from the delivery of advice to a role which defines what is required, procures it and then directs the outside provider.
The challenge for lawyers in organisations, then, is to define their role. Unless their specialism is directly related to the organisation’s mission and output, arguing that their value is solely in that technical knowledge is fraught with difficulty.
Not uncommonly in organisations, the role of the legal team is poorly understood, and the lawyers will react to that lack of comprehension – and sometimes hostility – by emphasising their skill and expertise, rather than focusing on the substantial benefits that their skills bring to the organisation.
You may well be facing significant top table preconceptions. Senior colleagues may expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the law (when it fact that is an impossibility); they may see you as a cost to the organisation; they may think you are the ‘sales prevention’ department, and they may criticise your financial literacy, your operational knowledge, your strategic awareness, commerciality, and inbred caution.
In many ways, there is a grain of truth behind those preconceptions. Your training will not have equipped you with the detailed knowledge of finance, strategy and operations which your colleagues have. You are unlikely to have managed significant numbers of people. Your personality profile will almost certainly predispose you to data and analysis which will appear cautious.
Your task is, in part, to tackle those preconceptions. You may consider continuously developing your relationships. You will want to raise your profile in the business. You will need to develop your understanding of the business, of its finances, its markets and the metrics and influences of your sector.
The key response to the challenge should not be to turn yourself into a finance or operational specialist. Rather, it should be to bring the broader skill set derived from your learning – your independence of thought, your intellectual curiosity, and your inherent attention to detail, research and analysis and problem-solving skills to bear. The second and third articles in this series will look in more detail at some specific tools which you may wish to consider.
In short, the criticisms and challenges that you may face as a lawyer in an organisation are that you are not the same as other senior people there. You do not think as they do, you do not have the same skill set that they do, and you may not have their knowledge of the business.
All that is true, and you will be well advised to learn the language of the organisation and its sector, your value to the organisation lies in the fact that you are different. You, and your skill set, are differentiated from every other operational, functional or management role in your organisation. Your learning, your experience, your expertise and the way you bring it to bear will have shaped who you are and what you do - in a way which gives you a real opportunity to operate differently.
You must, though, be prepared to lift yourself beyond the role of a technician.
Before lawyers started to specialise to the extent which is now commonplace, it was often argued that the lawyer’s true value was as a person of affairs, as a consigliere. They would bring more than their underlying technical expertise to the table. In other words, they were a trusted advisor – a stage which David Maister in The Trusted Advisor saw as the final element in a continuum of which only the first was that of a subject matter expert. To become a trusted adviser, he argued, required a thorough comprehension of business issues, and a deep personal relationship with - and respect for - the individuals involved.
In the second article in this series we will look in more detail at the ways in which you can use the law as an opportunity, and in the third article at some ways in which you might consider using your legal skills to best effect.
How are you seen in your organisation? What preconceptions do you face? Do you know how you are perceived? Here are some suggestions which you may like to follow up:
- Understand your personality. Undertake an appropriate personality assessment, such as Lumina Spark, Myers-Briggs or Belbin, [see links: further reading] which will help you to understand your personality type, and your preferred operational styles. Remember that there is no right or wrong type or style – just that people are different, and that for an organisation to be effective a range and diversity of styles and preferences is needed within each team.
- Conduct a 360-degree appraisal. In many organisations, the HR team can facilitate a structured 360-degree appraisal to help you understand how others see you. Chances are you will not like what you hear – you will see immediately that some people misunderstand your role, or what you say; others will have unfair criticism of you, or of the resource available to you; still others may not see you how you see yourself. All this presents a real opportunity to create a plan to deal with those misconceptions.
- Carry out ‘after-sales’ visits to your clients. Make time for a structured programme of visits or calls to the people with whom you and your team deal. Have an agenda which covers what you do for them, how their business is developing, and what they see as their new challenges. Go armed with some core metrics and headlines about what you and your team are doing – commercial successes, innovations, ways of working with the business. If you don’t talk about them, no-one else will.
- Ask open questions. Make time to speak to or meet senior colleagues. Ask if you can have an hour with them to learn about their role, what they do, and how they do it. Most people will be flattered, and you will learn a lot. Consider that the most effective question you can ask may well be ‘and what else should I know?’ That simple, open, question can lead to a wealth of powerful discussion.