In the corporate world circa 2009, does anyone still communicate by telephone? Do business people engage in face-to-face discussions anymore? Do corporate employees still circulate written memoranda when communicating with other employees?
For all practical purposes, e-mail has replaced the traditional forms of internal communication. While e-mail has its advantages, it is highly questionable whether it has improved the level of dialogue necessary for the business team's success. For in-house counsel, reliance on e-mail as the sole means of communication with the corporate clients may lead to advising them without a full grasp of the facts necessary to form an opinion. Even worse, it perpetuates the isolation from the business team that plagues many in-house counsel.
E-mail can be a helpful tool for in-house counsel when used wisely. It can be very handy when you need to seek or convey information--not necessarily to provide legal advice or opinions. Try to limit the use of e-mail to asking pointed questions rather than open-ended ones where you lose the ability to probe deeper into the facts.
Here are some ways in-house counsel can break the cycle of e-mail dependency:
o Remind the business people on a regular basis that you prefer a phone call, a conference call or a face-to-face meeting on sensitive or fact-intensive issues. If you do not say otherwise, they will assume that e-mail is your preferred means of contact. An "open door" approach is critical to creating the culture of dialogue.
o Depending on the nature of a particular topic, do not hesitate to resort to a written memorandum, which is less likely to be circulated in the same viral fashion as e-mails.
o Pick up the phone and call your clients for information about an issue. If you get an e-mail that requests a legal opinion, assume that you have not been informed of all of the relevant facts. Engage in a discussion either by telephone or in person to explore the facts before giving an opinion.
o Pay a visit to the business people in their offices. The "house call" approach serves a number of different purposes: First, you may be able to resolve the issue faster in a face-to-face meeting; second, you reinforce the important role the legal team has in partnering with the business people; third, you get an opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the business; and, finally, you put yourself in a position to learn about the business team's other initiatives and goals.
o Build a culture of dialogue. The members of the legal team need to learn to speak with one another first before they can expect the business people to do the same. Conduct regularly scheduled meetings with the attorneys and legal staff. Hold project meetings when various members of the legal department are working together on a major project. Include the relevant business people in those project meetings.
o Talk to the business team members about the importance of creating a culture of dialogue. Address the benefits of e-mail as well as the pitfalls that occur when e-mail communication is the only form of interaction among the business team.
o Encourage your executive team to adopt a policy where each employee refrains from sending e-mails to other employees on one particular day of each week.
Practice the culture of dialogue daily. In-house counsel will be in a much better position to provide meaningful legal advice based on a thorough understanding of the facts and business context in which it is being sought.