The traditional role of the in-house lawyer has been to counsel corporate management at all levels, supervise outside counsel and reduce legal barriers to business objectives. In some corporations, GCs are valued for their strategic thinking and role in reducing outside legal costs; in others, they are an unwanted but necessary stepchild--a cost center that produces no tangible profits. While senior management sets the tone for how in-house counsel are viewed within an organization, GCs can take active steps to redefine management's perception of their role and value. Because GCs don't report into any particular business units or divisions, they are in a unique position to interface with personnel throughout the company and cultivate professional relationships.
One step GCs can take to initiate these relationships is to periodically arrange one-on-one lunches with managers. I have found that lunch allows you to establish a personal connection with the business manager. To create rapport, GCs need to show a genuine interest in the manager both as an individual and a business colleague. You need to understand what challenges he or she faces both personally and on the business front. Only then can you determine how to best serve the manager's legal needs. These meetings can provide invaluable insights into the dynamics that fuel the corporation or hold it back from achieving its goals. They are an opportunity to gain information in an informal setting. In a neutral environment, such as a lunch meeting, the manager is much more likely to discuss what is on his or her mind.
While e-mail appears to have become the predominant means of communicating within an organization, there's no substitute for personal contact. It allows a relationship to grow, and ultimately allows GCs to attain a better understanding of business issues. In turn, it puts GCs in a stronger position to provide relevant advice. Having active, direct involvement with a number of departments in the company enables the general counsel to see a problem from many perspectives. Sometimes there are conflicts between the needs and objectives of different departments. By recognizing and resolving these conflicts, you can add value to the legal function. There also is value in visiting the business unit. Questions often pop up whenever I pass by or stop in to someone's office, and I always wonder whether those questions would have filtered down to the legal department otherwise.
A byproduct of reaching out to the corporate client through direct personal contact is an increase in the GC's perceived value. Obviously, your value should be measured by the quality of your work product and how quickly you can render legal services. However, you need to market yourself, especially with budgets so tight and on-going personnel changes in top management. To draw upon an analogy, one can manufacture the best or most innovative product in the world, but it will sit on the shelf if you don't communicate the unique attributes or value of that particular product to the consumer.
A lawyer can possess a high degree of competence and effectively react to the legal issues management poses, but at the same time, in-house counsel may be underused or perceived as sitting in an ivory tower waiting for problems to come to them. By maintaining a visible presence outside your office, you are directly or indirectly communicating the value of the services you have to offer.
Providing quality advice is generally a given in the eyes of management. Anticipating potential legal issues before they become a reality and resolving those issues in advance demonstrates added value to the corporate client. One of the most effective ways to recognize such issues is maintaining an informal but active presence with the business managers, where discussions often will revolve around business issues and challenges. Lawyers who can seize upon those issues and offer effective solutions not only will be viewed as a valuable commodity to the corporation, but also will acquire an inner satisfaction of knowing that they prevented a business problem from escalating into a legal issue.
Roger Marks serves a dual role at H2O Plus Inc., the Chicago-based developer of skin-care products. He is both the president of the international division and senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. He has been with H2O Plus since 1992.