For those that might not have read the first part of this post, I’m chiming in on the dynamic between business people and in-house legal teams and offering some advice on how that relationship might be made more efficient. My rather unique position as principal of a law firm (that provides in-house counsel) and the fact that I’m a not a lawyer and have been a consumer of legal services, both from my in-house counsel and external firms for over 25 years, forms the basis of my comments.
Last week I wrote about how business people (non-lawyers to our learned friends) could be better internal clients to their in-house legal teams. How, by following a few practical themes they could get the best out of their lawyers by respecting the reality of their roles.
Now the tables are turned. This is a business person’s critique of in-house lawyers, submitted with the same hope to make the everyday workings of the two respective disciplines smoother and more effective.
Give me business advice – This one has to go first. As important as this is for external counsel, it is doubly so for their in-house colleagues. There is no such thing as a risk-free business. Business owners accept that from risk comes the potential for profit, but they must balance this against the ramifications if the daily bets they make running a business don’t pay off. That’s where counsel comes in. Superior in-house counsel knows a pro-con memo exposing the litany of legal risks attached to an issue is useless to management. Instead, take that comprehensive risk assessment approach and tell me what that means for our business: How likely is it to occur? And what is the cost if it does? From there an informed decision can be made.
Don’t show off – OK, we get that there is a lot of pressure on you when you are writing to other lawyers. It’s only human nature to want to stand up to scrutiny from your peers, and yours is certainly a peer group that scrutinise. But please, when writing to business people understand the value we place on brevity and plain language. We don’t need proof of your conclusions – we’ll trust you have properly considered all sides of the issue. What we need most is the talent you have to distil complex concepts into practical, actionable bites we can explain easily to other people.
Educate me and let yourself be educated – Having had the good fortune of working with great lawyers over the years, I’ve accumulated a pretty good grasp of the basics of contract law. I (largely) don’t need counsel to explain the importance of warranties, well-structured termination clauses and practical events of default to me as examples. This layman’s appreciation doesn’t mean I will self-decision something legal in nature, but it does mean that we probably carve one-third of time spent off a given conversation with my lawyer. That’s of real value. This came as a result of many patient lawyers who would take that extra few minutes to give me some background of what these concepts mean.
Conversely, open yourself to learn about the business you support. To round out your ability to structure a legal solution that will fit into the realities of the businesses marketplace, ask basic questions as to why the deal you’re reviewing is structured the way it is. Show an active interest in the frustrations and concerns of the business. And try to understand the opportunities that are present before it.
Once again, there is no magic to any of this. My hope though, is that as either lawyer or business person, you might find something that provokes some self-reflection and perhaps even provides a low-risk way to start a conversation on how the two respective teams might work together better.