Know your company and you'll earn its respect

In-house counsel should find their place inside the ever-changing business arena

As in-house legal resources continue to remain fixed or even dwindle, we often find ourselves feeling overwhelmed. This feeling is exacerbated when we pursue multiple legal disciplines and areas of practice. The economic situation at large is so fluid, and our business clients must rapidly react. Many companies are still downsizing, so our business partners, their reports and sometimes the legal department itself may operate in fear.

Fear rarely results in good decision making in the business arena. The organization may try to force issues or take a unit in directions that are not beneficial to the company, or it may stir up larger risks of which it may be unaware. In some circumstances individuals may simply ignore the risks in the face of mounting pressure for financial performance. Simply put, people will push the envelope.

It is naïve to think that many in-house attorneys, when presented with this scenario, won’t have moments of doubt. The strident, confident businessperson who demands and forges a path regardless of advice to the contrary can be a powerful force. It is far too easy as an adviser to fall into the mode of “I gave my advice, what they do with it is up to them.” This does not further your position within the company, make you more valuable, build trust or protect your position in any way. Within many entrepreneurial organizations, it has the opposite effect.

Fulfilling the bare bones requirements of protecting one’s job and not committing malpractice is not true counsel. It’s the “cover your rear” approach to the job. When pushing the envelope, and presenting elevated risk that is (in your opinion) unwise or needing refinement, people must hear that advice. Although this is not written into your state’s bar regulations, it is incumbent upon in-house counsel, more so than our outside counsel, to state our opinions in this fashion to best serve the company. This isn’t about simply giving advice, billing and getting paid. We are paid to serve as the navigator, guiding the company to its destination not always via the most direct path, but via the most direct path that guarantees safe passage. 

The company’s ability to follow your direction often depends on respect for your position and you as an individual. I believe the basis for such respect is (in order of perceived corporate importance): how well you know the company’s business; how well you know its operational unit/division/group, and their “motivating pain(s)”; how well you communicate, without seeming overly combative or condescending; and how well you know the law.

My ranking may seem shocking to the classically trained attorney. “Certainly people must be concerned about my expertise! How can they not value my [number of publications/CLEs attended/classes I aced in law school]?” My experiences and the experiences I have collected anecdotally from my peers indicate that companies do not find these things particularly compelling. Certainly they are the foundation of solid advice, and I seek not to diminish them. But, those things do not factor into a businessperson’s feeling that you are ”one of them.” And that factor is imperative in increasing your odds of giving advice that is received and implemented.

This year is an opportunity for us to make improvements, to explore areas we have never seen. The fact that you cover more ground than you ever have is surely a burden. You have never worked this many hours. And maybe the pay has stayed the same. But you have the opportunity to expand your knowledge, the businesspeople you work with and your intelligence regarding your company. That expansion benefits the client and your résumé, as everyone can appreciate attorneys attuned to the needs of the business, aware of their environment, and able to state their legal opinions with confidence, clarity and the requisite volume to ensure their clients know that they give the advice to help them get better. Isn’t that why we chose this path in the first place?

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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