The Curious Case of Corporate Counsel - Practical Tips to Grow Your Value Moving Forward


Let's face it. Legal departments are viewed as cost centers, part of overhead. They do not exist because they generate cash, unlike sales departments or even their law firm counterparts. The initial decision to hire an attorney to work exclusively for one client is typically triggered by three incentives: cost (at least at first, when the entity recognizes that the amount spent on attorney's fees could be lowered by having someone in-house do the same job, usually for less money), specialized expertise, and personal relationships.

Although the trend seems to be changing slightly, most corporate counsel are hired after gaining experience working in a law firm for a few years. The majority viewpoint is that they are already trained in law and expected to implement legal compliance and preventive measures, to have strong negotiation abilities, superior oral and written communication skills, and an unquestioned integrity.

The Raison D'Etre of the In-house Position

As an example, at a negotiation with a large bank a couple of years ago during which the other party commented on and argued over almost every single clause of a license agreement. The negotiator was an in-house counsel, freshly brought on board after having worked a few years at a prominent law firm. Her direct superior, the bank's General Counsel, jumped in and explained to this savvy and motivated attorney to let it go, that the importance and price of the deal did not justify so much time and effort.

This anecdote highlights the premise that other special skills are needed to be a valued legal professional within a corporate environment. How can you shape your role to not only match but go beyond your internal client's expectations? Here are practical tips to help you grow your value moving forward.

What Is Value, Anyway?

Value is subjective. It varies with a company's culture and industry. According to the Association of Corporate Counsel, "A company will attribute value to legal service to the extent that the service serves a demonstrable business purpose identified by that organization."

Value also varies according to the size of the legal department. Expectations and means to grow are different for small and large legal departments. Small divisions have fewer lawyers, which means they have less time to devote to issues that have no recognizable impact on the departments' work (most of their time is spent on day-to-day issues and emergencies). They also have smaller budgets, which makes long term proactive measures hard to implement. However, whether in a small or large legal team, being a valuable business partner requires the attorney to integrate himself into the business, build up credibility and trust and become a strategic resource to his or her fellow colleagues and employees.

General Counsel: The Valuable Business Executive Partner

It is said that a General Counsel is a business executive whose area of expertise happens to be legal. Once the GC comprehends the business and corporate philosophy, she is frequently involved in the decision making process and the strategy development, adding value to the business by balancing legal risk versus business interests, and making sure transactions do not transgress into areas that would damage the corporation's reputation. In fact, the General Counsel is a unique asset within the management team: by default, he is more likely to have a more objective point of view in terms of strategic planning (as opposed to the Chief of Marketing, who will try not to cut back on marketing, as will the Chief Technology Officer on IT, etc.). To appease any tensions related to their input, they should nonetheless clarify their role of as adviser, as opposed to pure decision-maker.

Corporate Counsel: A Valuable Business "Enabler"

Whether you are General Counsel, Legal VP, CLO, or Corporate Counsel, here are practical tips for you and your team to grow as valuable business "enablers:"

Be Accessible, Learn and Serve

Don't isolate yourself. Absorb the intricacies of your clients' business. Develop business empathy--be curious and become an active listener to understand your clients' goals and needs. Walk around the units or divisions, meet your colleagues, collect information about their responsibilities (either directly or through Human Resources) to learn what is expected from specific positions in order to understand how your legal advice will better respond to business challenges. Develop and promote a mission statement with your team.

Educate

Trust comes from understanding. Don't let your role stay in the dark, as an unattainable and misunderstood division. Organize short trainings or launch periodic internal newsletters or workshops on the legal implications and risk each unit has to deal with. Explain why the legal department is a business enabler and not a business inhibitor. This will encourage clients to be forthcoming.

Communicate Concise, Logical and Practical Advice

In general, find a solution that complies with the law while achieving the required business purpose. Make sure your legal advice is understandable, and formulate it in a meaningful way for a non-legal audience. Communicate open and collaborative ways to get work done in a logical, practical manner. From the format perspective, communicate by sending short(er) emails, summarizing attachments, and using bullet-points and PowerPoints.

Manage Your Time

Manage your time strategically. Prioritize the issues you have on your plate; you will not be able to deal with them all at once. This will help your internal clients understand what is most important for the business. Be prepared to shift priorities based on business needs and deadlines. Save time and preserve the corporate legal memory by implementing proactive processes that are repeatable, measurable and defensible.

Be Supportive, Drive Initiatives

Support superior execution of deals and transactions. Don't hinder a deal with unnecessary legal input or revisions. Weigh legal risk probabilities against business perspectives to reach a practical, commercial outcome. Nobody can be right 100% of the time! The ability to make a judgment call is one of the most valuable traits Corporate Counsel can offer. Train your clients in negotiation, risk and judgment.

Have Greater Command and Control of Information and Data

Set up procedures to better collaborate with your team. Try to better understand, streamline and improve your recurring work processes. You cannot manage what you cannot measure: implement a comprehensive legal matter management system, or at the very least a contract management system. Use metrics to report on workload and quantifiable achievements. Collect and report these performance indicators as proof of your value.

Develop a Sustainable Relationship with Your Outside Counsel

Find reliable law firms to collaborate with. Make sure they understand your business, as they also should be business partners and business enablers. Outside counsel have the biggest impact on your budget. Monitor their costs and performance. Negotiate rates, discuss Alternative Fee Arrangements, and yet make sure you do not hinder a sustainable relationship by trying to drive the fees down at any cost.

Quantify the Level of Your Service

Use scorecards to measure your clients 'level of appreciation.' It will help you drive your team and your goals. It will help you justify budgets. It will give the utmost proof of your value.

Recruit and Manage a Happy Staff

Hire and develop legal talent. Explain why you do what you do. Promote staff learning and growth. After all, the success of your law department ultimately comes down to your people.