Eight Ways to become a GC with influence
One of my guilty pleasures is watching the US legal drama ‘Suits’. It follows the rivalries of a group of larger than life, dysfunctional lawyers at fictional Manhattan law firm, Pearson Hardman. I gawp at their ability to absorb lengthy legal documents with only a cursory glance, and am kept on a suspenseful leash by the central plotline: how long can a drug-taking college dropout with a photographic memory keep up the pretence of being a Harvard law graduate?
But what really entertains me is the way that the firm’s superstar lawyer, Harvey Specter, drives, coerces – or even dupes – his client in to the win-win outcome that he confidently guarantees, even if this means playing fast and loose with the rules.
Leaving aside the questionable professional and ethical conduct, it occurred to me that we lawyers could learn a bit from Harvey about proactivity, when most of us – at least here in the UK – have been trained in highly risk averse and reactive environments. Certainly, the lesson I learned as a trainee was that you are there to advise, not to take decisions or do the client’s job for them. To the client’s question: “Should I do X?” we are trained to give an answer worthy of Francis Underwood of House of Cards: “You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”.
This kind of detachment is fairly typical of a traditional private practice, where there is usually more of an arm’s length relationship with the client. But it is a non-starter in business as any lawyer who decides to make the move in-house finds out very quickly. Suddenly, from opining from the safety of the sidelines, you find that in negotiations you ARE the client and the decisions on risk calls are often your own. There is no room for vacillation and often little opportunity for consulting others, all of which can be quite alarming at first.
But with every major business decision comes an opportunity for the General Counsel (GC) to refuse to be paralysed into inertia by the fear of risk, and instead to embrace a more proactive and strategic approach that can make the job far more interesting and rewarding.
Here are my top tips which I’ve learned from my time in-house and during my time working for different clients at Halebury:
1. Learn why your company is in business. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But until you understand its value drivers, your legal advice will be based more on theory rather than reality. The goal here is perspective, the ability to judge which risks are worth arguing about and which are a waste of everyone’s time.
2.Learn how to communicate in plain English. You need to translate legal issues into quantifiable financial savings or returns, as this is how your role will be measured. The art is to write simply but clearly using concepts and terminology that are readily understood by non-lawyers. Become a master of the executive summary (in the knowledge that few are likely to read past it).
3. Understand what motivates the people you work with. Spend time with people in different departments such as sales. Take the time to explain your role. Once other departments understand your commercial role within the business you will be less prone to unhelpful caricatures of the lawyer as “Deal Prevention Officer” or similar. Try to break down barriers by organising contract law training events for the sales team, and ask them to explain to the lawyers how they work. The best negotiating teams are made up of lawyers who take the time to win the respect of their commercial/sales counterparts, who in turn learn to be respectful of legal risk.
4. Familiarise yourself with your company’s strategy. This is obviously much easier if you are already part of the management team. Being aware of the strategic priorities of the business will help you to priortise your workload and direct your own resources more effectively.
5. Win the trust of senior management. Changing a company’s risk culture or improving its processes will only be possible if you are given the authority to do so, which won’t happen unless you have the trust and respect of the people at the top. Every Board assumes it needs a Finance Director, but not every board thinks it needs a General Counsel.
6. Make friends with other departments. Finance, HR, Procurement, Risk, Insurance and of course IT. You will work together on a lot of business critical projects so invest in getting to know your counterparts – understand each other’s roles and share knowledge and ideas.
7. Understand processes and, if necessary, modify them to include touch points with Legal. Knowing what deals are in the pipeline is key to doing your job properly. Ensuring that Legal is involved at key points in decision chains will give you an early warning system to identify actual or potential legal issues or risks in the deal pipeline. It can also help avoid those late nights and panicked legal salvage operations that can come from raising important questions late in the day.
8. Become known as a problem solver, and don’t confine yourself to problems that are obviously legal. The lawyer who can see across the silos of a business, and who can operate at different levels within those silos, has a unique perspective, and with it the opportunity to become indispensable to management. Obviously a lot of this is down to the culture of the business – you need to work in an environment where the CEO/Board believes in and understands the value of the GC.
For those who are so inclined, the opportunities for a lawyer in business – particularly a growing business – are huge but they need to be seized with both hands. As we are often reminded, “more from less” is expected of today’s GCs than at any other time. With the increasing burden of regulation and the growing complexity of businesses, the risks to be managed are greater than ever. But the solution is not just to have more lawyers who can do the legal work and identify the risks, but ones who also have the courage and vision to drive the necessary changes in organizational behavior – and, crucially, who are given the authority to do so. As Harvey would say: “You’re never going to win big if you only look to minimize your losses”.
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