Learning to say "no" will protect you and your company

You can't keep all the spinning plates of your clients' requests balanced forever

“More with less.” The phrase has never been more trenchant or applicable to the in-house practitioner than in this economic climate. As in-house lawyers pressure their firm partners to deliver value and efficiency while maintaining high-quality and winning results, we in turn receive pressure from our department leaders and client executives to produce more results with unchanging or decreased resources. As I said recently in a presentation to a local group of legal marketers, “CFOs have never had more power than they do this instant. Why should in-house lawyers and their firm service providers be seen differently by a CFO than the IT group or any other support department?”

While some in-house lawyers may feel strongly that they do deserve better treatment, the business climate suggests that those who sign our paychecks feel otherwise. They are challenged to measure our success. As a result, the Association of Corporate Counsel website is now peppered with articles and tools on how we can “show the value” of the legal department. For many of us, showing value is simply saying “yes” to all requests and working until all requests are met, which they never are. If we take on every task and never show resistance to unreasonable requests, how could we possibly lose our jobs? It can be a fearbased practice. There is no endgame, no annual billable hours’ number to hit.

While there is certainly justification for this extreme behavior, these practices are not best for our clients. We are taught to protect our clients at all costs, yet we knowingly put them at risk by pressing out work product while drowsily slumping over our desks at 1 a.m. Many of us know that part of the practice is protecting clients from their own decisions, which they make without considering risk or repercussions. We must ensure company decisions are wise and made with the best possible legal counsel. When someone presses you to turn over that 50-page enterprise contract in 48 hours, he is not just conscripting you to a weekend at the computer, he is asking you to turn out something below your best work. In a sense, he is unwittingly asking you to put the company at risk. 

I struggled through much of my career with the best way to resist these unreasonable requests. I wanted my clients to be happy, above everything else. I did not realize the possibly dire consequences of trying to grant every request. Career-ending errors may occur by simply being inattentive. In the grand scheme of things, asking for an extra day and having a slightly irritated salesperson pales in comparison to your error in a material transaction or piece of litigation. If the company forces your hand, you should protect yourself just as you would if the company fails to take other important legal advice. It is essentially saying, “We accept your possibly subpar efforts.” I would be sure to have the company express this sentiment in writing.

Use the tools you have. My last article, "Don't be afraid to welcome electronic overlords," referenced a proposed awakening to legal technology. Grab whatever you can. It will promote departmental efficiency and hopefully allow you to do more work during your best, most productive hours. Ensure you are using your staff correctly and that you know how to manage to their strengths. Lawyers are notoriously bad managers because we presume we need little to no education on the topic. Be a standout in this area by reading any of the very brief management “tip books” to help you get more from your staff. Learn to make hard-dollar business cases for more or better tools.

In-house lawyers rarely shy away from giving unpopular advice. We know it is part of our mission statement. Fighting the urge to take on everything, and doing your tasks under extreme duress protects both you and the company.

Stephen Kaplan is senior vice president and general counsel of Connextions Inc.

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Stephen Kaplan

Stephen Kaplan is senior vice president and general counsel of Connextions, Inc.

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