In-House – Part of the Team
“Right, come on, let’s go for a walk.” I looked up in confusion. It was my first day in an in-house legal environment and I was still in the process of locating stationery and memorising names, so going on a stroll was not what I had expected my supervisor to suggest. But this was the start of an important lesson.
Having trained and qualified in private practice I was more used to taking a reactive stance in relation to work – I dealt with whatever came onto my desk but that was all. Admittedly this may have been due to my then junior position, but it has been both time and my first in house supervisor – who have taught me that it is far more important to be proactive. He saw the value in investing time in regularly walking the floors and interacting with people across the whole business. I came to understand that by being seen and being seen to be accessible, it was possible to cultivate a legal role which was both positive and proactive. Instead of merely waiting for work to materialise and problems to appear, by connecting with all parts of the business and doing so in an approachable way, people would start discussing plans and issues at an early stage. This in turn meant that a proportion of potential legal problems could be avoided.
When I first started out in-house I was slightly concerned about the lack of distance between myself and my clients. In private practice there was some feeling of safety in the divide provided by emails and phone calls, so the thought that someone could just appear at my desk unannounced with a question or two was initially rather unnerving. Now, some twelve years later, one of the aspects of the in-house environment which I value most is the feeling of being there ‘at the coal face’, readily accessible, as part of the same team as the internal business clients.
That ‘same team’ feeling can be achieved in a number of ways and bridging the gap between the lawyers and the rest of the commercial folk undoubtedly benefits the business as a whole:
(1) Be Seen</strong)
A daily stroll around the offices may be slightly optimistic for time-poor, busy lawyers, but at the very least do not lock yourself away in your office or tie yourself to your desk, but open your door and be seen to be approachable.
(2) Share the Knowledge
Giving regular talks on relevant legal topics to the business can open up the flow of communication and an added benefit is that it gives the non-lawyers an idea as to what the lawyers do and vice versa and where the business/legal lines cross. In my experience external law firms are generally keen to give such presentations in the hope of being instructed, usually at no cost to the business.
(3) Say yes not no
It is not an uncommon feeling in businesses that a lawyer’s role is merely to say no or to prevent a plan from coming to fruition – and starting from negative position such as this is neither comfortable for the lawyer nor profitable for the business. Therefore it may be worth demonstrating both through actions and words that lawyers can in fact facilitate rather than prevent. This process can be started by behaving in a more commercial manner and looking at the ‘bigger picture’ rather than simply addressing a specific legal issue. On a facile basis, where feasible and practicable, rather than saying ‘No, that won’t work because…’ a subtle shift in emphasis to ‘If you would like to achieve the same aim, how about dealing with it this way…?’ may make a world of difference. Demonstrating that the legal team want to help the business achieve its aims and looking at how those aims can be achieved in this way with a commercial approach may not always sit well with lawyers who are traditionally risk averse and nervous about giving commercial advice, but a modicum of commercial sense can benefit all.
(4) Lock that stable door
For as long as they have been in existence, lawyers have been the subject of bad press and there is a danger that the lawyers are only called when trouble arises. It is worth publicising internally to the business that lawyers can prevent issues surfacing or can prepare the business in a proactive and positive way for issues arising.
A significant by-product of implementing some or all of the above suggestions, is that the lawyers themselves develop a greater involvement in and understanding of the business in which they are operating and find themselves to be more fulfilled. Greater personal and professional contentment surely has to be a good thing.
Ok then, stand up and open the door. It’s time for that walk.
If you would like to contact Marissa, you can reach her on: