The tyranny of firefighting, and how to break out of the reactive role (Part 1)

If you don’t find a way to bring about change in a way that feels comfortable for you, nothing will change.

In my experience, it is the rare C-suite executive who sees lawyers as a valuable, strategic business partner. If we’re honest with ourselves, we are seen as “necessary,” but not necessarily desirable. We are overhead, and we tend to be expensive — even if we still cost less than the alternative of outsourcing to a law firm or haphazard risk management.

As a result, all too often there is enterprise inertia to keep lawyers in a box — in-house lawyers are utilized when something bad happens or when discreet advice is needed, but there is no need for day-to-day involvement in business management and strategic planning/execution. That’s how in-house lawyers end up in very narrowly defined, compartmentalized roles that center around reviewing contracts or overseeing litigation or handling all labor and employment issues. But if that’s the role that we, as in-house attorneys, really wanted to play ... we could have kept working at a law firm. Let’s be honest, doing a job that isn’t quite so compartmentalized or homogenous would be a lot more fun, engaging and rewarding.

If you are in a situation where you are compartmentalized from the engine of your business, or where all you do all day long is put out fires reactively, then I would suggest that you have a problem and you need to take action to fix it. A compartmentalized lawyer will rarely get an opportunity to shine, and a firefighter will never have time to focus on proactively solving problems before they happen. It’s a bad cycle that will keep repeating itself. It has happened to all of us.

But it is unlikely that anyone will come to you sua sponte to identify and address this problem. As long as you are (a) busy; and (b) getting your “expected” work done, no one will worry too much about your untapped potential that, incidentally, no one is aware of except you. It is incumbent upon all of us to help our organizations structure our roles in a way that best positions us to do our jobs well. But this is not easily done, and it is especially hard for women. None of us want to be seen as over-eager or worse, self-promoting and arrogant. But I promise you this: If you don’t find a way to bring about change in a way that feels comfortable for you, nothing will change. So what’s worse — the anxiety and perceived risks that come with leaving the in-house “safe zone” or the status quo? For me, it was always the status quo.

But no one is going to give you a seat at the table or restructure your workflow to make time for “proactive problem solving” just because you asked for it. These are privileges and they must be earned. Some suggestions on how this can be done will be the focus of our next installment.

author image

Noelle J. Perkins

Noelle Perkins is deputy general counsel at John Bean Technologies Corp. Her practice is focused on counseling JBT’s global FoodTech Operating Segment on a wide...

Bio and more articles

Join the Conversation

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.