It is easy for in-house counsel to get too comfortable keeping their nose to the grindstone, only coming up for air when they have to attend a meeting or grab some lunch. They’re implicitly saying “look at me, look how hard I’m working — I must be valuable to the company,” right? Not exactly.
That approach ignores the importance of building relationships on a human level. Working with in-house counsel of various levels for many years, I’ve had the opportunity to coach them on some best practices for enhancing their profile and showcasing their value to an organization. Most of that starts with having the right attitude and being skilled at relationship building.
All too often in-house counsel are seen by the business as roadblocks as they fight to keep a company from ending up on the wrong end of a legal issue. It’s shocking to still see many in-house counsel adopting an unhealthy “us vs. them” mentality as it pertains to their legal department and the business teams they serve. It is time to wake up; the legal department and the business leaders in an organization are on the same team!
Here are three simple steps to make any in-house counsel indispensable to their department and the business.
Become a part of the culture
Rule of lawyering 101: observe and then assimilate to the company culture. In-house counsel who fail to adapt to the company culture will not be seen as partners with the business.
- Is your company’s culture laid back and more inclined to email/text? If so, adapt to that.
- Is your company’s culture highly personal where speaking on the phone is valued far more than email? If so, pick up the phone.
- Is your company’s culture meeting crazy or do they despise meetings? Go with your team’s preference!
- What’s the dress code? Hyper casual or all business? Modify your style to fit in!
- When do people convene? Lunch or happy hour on campus? Find out and go there.
Be a communicator
In-house counsel — like all attorneys — should be expert communicators. Yet, surprisingly, many are either not effective communicators when it comes to interpersonal relationships or they take the passive-aggressive route of complaining rather than communicating to solve issues.
Writing a brief or a contract is one thing. Communicating effectively with people you work with or support is another. Enhancing your value to an organization requires building up allies and forging key relationships. Being an effective interpersonal communicator is an essential skill that will get you there.
When asked by the business, share your feedback and solicit their feedback as well. All too often, in-house counsel are approached by their client groups or manager for a check-in or to see how things are going and all too often they have little to say or share, yet complain about those same people afterward. This makes no sense. When asked, share your thoughts in a positive and constructive way. Not taking that opportunity means losing the opportunity to build healthy relationships.
In your department, engage with your colleagues and address issues head-on. If you’re having a challenge with a difficult colleague or business team member, take them to lunch. Hear them out and work toward a resolution. Also, don’t be afraid to communicate within your department and share your ideas or feedback. You don’t have to be the general counsel to feel you have something of value to contribute to your department. And for general counsels out there, solicit feedback from your teams, show them you value their contributions as well. Encouraging a healthy dialogue always starts at the top.
Some in-house counsel may tend to speak down to their business teams. That’s clearly not a good idea. Just because business team members may not have the legal education you have does not mean they are not skilled in other areas. And, if, in all honesty, they lack skill in their job, making them feel less than is a guaranteed way to create serious barriers to success. People who feel put down or backed into a corner will not respond well to anything you do after that. Plus, it’s not nice.
Treat everyone you work with in any role, at any level within the company, with respect and kindness. Being good to people always comes back to you — if not in some form of good karma — it comes back more obviously with a wider base of support in a company across various levels and functions. That wider base of support will help you in more ways than you know as you evolve in your career.
For in-house counsel today, of course, their plate is full and spare time is a luxury but take the time to focus on what is core. Responding to a hundred emails is important and you’ll get to it eventually, but building relationships with key people and client teams pays off well into your future. Take the time to do it now!