As any general counsel will tell you, managing an in-house legal team requires support, whether the department has hundreds of employees or merely one. A large budget for more staff and technology can certainly help, but the most valuable forms of support come simply from developing effective partnerships with the other functions of the company. For those general counsel looking to ease their efforts without the benefit of a bigger budget, consider the following suggestions to develop transformative internal partnerships.
Become a true member of the team
As a starting point, every general counsel should consider the role that he or she wants to play within the organization. Is the role purely to flag and minimize risk and liability, or is the role more complex and tied to the broader strategy? It can be much easier to leverage the resources and support of other members of the C-suite if they view you as more of a strategic partner than as a traditional lawyer. To achieve this view, define your role for your colleagues, making clear that your interests are aligned with theirs, and your mission is to help them achieve their goals with an alternative, experienced perspective. By making clear that you are on their team, your colleagues in other functions will be much more inclined not only to cooperate with your team, but to support your efforts.
Understand the business
Legal issues are business issues. As a result, truly to be effective, the GC must know the business. “In order to give optimal legal advice, an attorney needs to understand the company's business model inside and out, whether he or she is acting as outside counsel, outside general counsel, or in-house counsel,” notes Thomas Goldstein, co-managing partner of Paxton Law Group, based in Washington, D.C. One useful strategy to develop this understanding is by embedding your team in the business to accelerate the learning curve, as well as make a clear statement that you are committed to other functions. Have your team attend staff meetings and be present when important business decisions are made. Only by gaining a clear handle on the work of their peers and showing genuine interest in that work can general counsel be effective partners to others at the business, as well as gain full support for the legal team’s efforts.
Don’t always say “No”
Among the GC’s greatest obstacles to critical internal partnerships is the perception that the in-house team exists simply to say “no.” While the GC and his or her team must put the brakes on activities that pose too much risk for the business, it is important not to go too far in the avoidance of risk. “A lawyer who serves as a strategic partner to a business understands that some risks are necessary for the venture to grow and prosper,” notes Goldstein. He cautions that “if you say ‘no’ too often, the business people will stop listening to you, which can lead to serious problems in the future.”
Look ahead for the business
Use your perspective to support strategic growth while minimizing risk. Use your knowledge of the law to anticipate and evaluate legal or regulatory changes to find strategic advantages for the business. By putting your training and experience to work for the rest of the company, not only will you gain more buy-in from your executive colleagues, but you could help drive the business forward in ways that you and your in-house legal peers may never have expected.
No general counsel is an island. Building partnerships with other functions is a critical way to add more value to the business, as well as make the in-house legal team’s work easier. And without such partnerships, a general counsel all but assures a more challenging experience than necessary.