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First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers (part 2)

Musings on the critical importance of building relationships of mutual respect, understanding and trust with the business side

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

—Edwin Starr

In my last column, I talked about the differences in being a profit center (as law firm lawyers are) and going to a position as a cost center (as in-house counsel are).

In many cases, the business side perceives in-house counsel as a cost center whose only purpose appears to be to spout regulations and case law in the form of too-long memos or emails that take too long to produce full of archaic legalese. The bottom line seems always to be, “No, you can’t do that.”

This is what makes the business side/profit centers want to kill all the lawyers. And they do “kill” them. First by ignoring and avoiding them or complaining about them and then, ultimately, by directly or indirectly managing to get rid of them. In the battle between cost centers and profit centers, guess who wins? It’s not a battle you want or need to fight. 

So, how can you extend the olive branch? As a basic first step, it is incumbent upon all in-house counsel, especially those in-house counsel who aspire to the GC role, to learn all that they can about their organization, its competitors and the industry(ies) in which the organization operates. They must also continue to increase their general business knowledge on a daily basis. Fortunately, we lawyers love to do research and homework! Regularly reading industry publications and participating in relevant trade associations is key. The more you understand about your business and business in general, the better you get at applying that knowledge to your legal advice and the more value you will be able to provide to the business side. And the less likely you are to get “killed.”

On a fundamental communication level, this also helps in talking the talk when you know the lingo that your internal clients are fluent in. Both internal and external clients like us lawyers a lot more, or at least hate us a little less, when we sound a lot less like lawyers and a lot more like normal people. While it may seem like being damned with faint praise when it happens, trust me when I tell you that the highest compliment a client can bestow upon you is to say “I always forget you’re a lawyer!” GCs actually brag about this.

This mindset is also helpful in potentially making a move to the business side of the organization yourself, or in joining corporate boards of other companies (both of which GCs are increasingly doing), in addition to simply furthering one’s career as an effective in-house counsel. But that, too, is a whole ‘nother column.

Contributing Author

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Sonya Olds Som

Sonya Olds Som is a managing director in Major, Lindsey & Africa's Chicago office and is primarily responsible for leading networking, business development and marketing...

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