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.
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.