Survival Skills: A Guide to Boosting Your Business Savvy

Over the past decade, the role of the general counsel has changed dramatically. Once viewed as what Caribou Coffee's GC Dan Lee likes to call "the keeper of no," valued primarily for his or her ability to keep the company out of legal trouble, the GC is now expected to be an integral part of the strategic business team.

The ongoing economic crisis has heightened that expectation--financially strapped companies need ideas to move the business forward and in-house lawyers who are true partners in that effort.

"In so many ways, it has paid off for me," Wishart says. "It makes me a better deal maker because I understand the financials and the structure of the deal. I can suggest other ways of financing or splitting the pie or paying it down, and I know how that will affect our cash position and EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). I not only understand what they are talking about, I can also contribute to the conversation."

Wishart decided to pursue an MBA after sitting in back-to-back meetings on large business deals. "My knowledge of finance and accounting was that debits were on the left and credits were on the right," she says. "I could keep up with the legal side, but I couldn't keep up on the financial side. I felt the advice I was giving them was flawed. At that point I said, 'If I want to go further, I really need to understand business.'"

2. Crash Courses

Like many in-house attorneys, Chris Willis learned business skills on the fly. But as he took on bigger roles, he realized that wasn't enough.

For lawyers who already know the fundamentals of finance, tailored courses can enhance specific business skills. For example, Mark Weiss, assistant GC of Staples Inc., spends much of his time on mergers and acquisitions, which led him to take a one-week executive education course in M&As at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in 2008. Among the 50 participants, he was the only lawyer--the others were mostly CEOs and heads of business development.

"My view is that more in-house lawyers should engage in executive business education," Weiss says. "It builds credibility with clients. It enhances your career. Whatever your role [in the legal department], you are wearing a business hat at times and providing business advice. You need to be able to filter that advice through a business lens."

In return, during his 15 months in a business role he gained insights that are helpful now that he has returned to the legal department in a leadership role as senior corporate counsel.

"To have the perspective of bringing a whole business into Caterpillar gives me an appreciation for operations, treasury, human resources, the supply chain, production systems and the strategic value of M&A that I wouldn't have had," he says. "Now as I advise business units, I have much more in-depth understanding of what it takes to run the complete business and what it takes to make it successful. In a nutshell, it's a business perspective."

Karen Wishart, executive vice president and chief legal officer of TV One, agrees. Even though she has an MBA, she still turns to the network's CFO for help understanding financial matters. She thinks some in-house counsel make a mistake in letting their pride stand in the way of seeking help not only from the CFO, but also from the heads of marketing, sales and accounting.

"I think you can learn on the job," she says. "But some lawyers aren't willing to put themselves out there and admit there are things we aren't expert in because we pride ourselves on people thinking we are knowledgeable."

Senior Editor

Mary Swanton

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