As a lawyer, how often do you hear yourself saying, “I give legal advice, I don’t make the actual decisions”? Especially if you have a background in a law firm, it’s easy to think of the legal function as being limited to advising the members of the company who make the calls. Lawyers weigh the pros and cons of any scenario, provide the “one side, the other side” analysis, and leave the final say to someone else, right?
It may have worked in the past, but providing top quality advice is no longer enough in today’s market. Corporate lawyers who want to maximize their impact must be prepared to take a much more operational approach to their work.
This means gaining a deep understanding of business processes and managing diverse teams of legal and non-legal staff. It means being willing to take risks. And, more importantly, it means providing actionable solutions and making decisions on issues that may well fall outside the typical legal portfolio. In other words, it means being a real leader.
Know your business operations like you know the law
As corporate lawyers, we like to think of ourselves as independent from the industry. Whether we support technology, pharmaceuticals, energy, manufacturing, retail, or another area, we are confident in our ability to parachute in and manage any related litigation, investigation, or transaction involved. As long as we understand the law and the process, we can apply it to any business transaction.
But the combination of increasingly broad and complex regulatory regimes, constant technological and business developments within the modern global economy, and management’s expectations that lawyers serve as referral resources for an endless array of issues means having a high level knowledge of operations does not cut it.
The company not only asks for options analysis under the law, but also our opinions and advice on critical (and even not-so-critical) business decisions.
Therefore, today’s lawyers must possess both deep expertise in their specific industry and an intimate understanding of how their organization operates. It means having a deep, top-down understanding of the products and processes that drive your business.
If you have a sales function, spend side-by-side time with them through the entire process, from presenting to the client to closing deals. If you have product engineers or coders, spend time learning what they do and what issues they face. Better yet, look for opportunities to integrate or take on an additional role within operations or another functional area like finance or human resources.
As lawyers, our analytical and communication skills, coupled with the fact that we are involved in many issues, give us unlimited potential to serve as organizational leaders.
Don’t follow the path of least resistance
As lawyers, we know how transactions and lawsuits can go south and are naturally trained to avoid risk. But one of the best ways to lose credibility with management is to be a constant opponent. Whether it’s legal or compliance issues, if you’re a regular hindrance to growth and can’t match your advice with proactive, positive solutions, it’s only a matter of time before you won’t be replaced by someone more business-friendly.
That doesn’t mean you should err on the side of caution and take absurd risks. Sometimes legal counsel is the last safeguard protecting an organization and its leaders from making truly awful decisions. But if you’re protecting your organization and not helping it grow its business or advance its mission, you’re only doing half your job.
Say Yes to Non-Legal Project Management, People
At any given time, in-house counsel can expect to be involved in a wide range of projects. Whether it’s a potential acquisition, a restructuring, an overhaul of corporate information systems or the management of an audit, advice is often sought not only to resolve legal issues , but also to manage the project from start to finish.
As lawyers, we are generally organized and efficient at managing time and competing demands. But project management is its own set of skills that involves planning, executing, documenting, tracking, and constantly communicating with stakeholders to achieve a goal. While some companies may retain contractors or outside consultants to run projects, others will look to their in-house legal team, which likely has no formal project management training, to oversee and manage their projects.
Additionally, the structure and organization of a legal department can vary significantly from company to company and company to company. Traditionally non-legal functions such as contracts, internal audit, risk management, investigations or compliance can flow all the way back to the legal department. This means that general counsel are often tasked with managing various teams of non-lawyers on traditionally non-legal initiatives.
Instead of backing down from these types of projects, today’s lawyers need to seize these opportunities and take the lead.
None of this is to say that our primary mission as lawyers has changed, which is to provide sound legal advice. But to be truly effective internally, lawyers today must be able to provide not only legal answers but also strategic answers.
Lawyers are adaptive, nimble, and critical thinkers who are more than capable of managing non-legal projects and personnel and making operational decisions that impact the bottom line. Those who do can prove their worth within an organization, earn the respect of the company and, most importantly, position themselves as successful leaders.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Joseph Moreno is the General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer of SAP National Security Services (SAP NS2®). He was previously a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a national security attorney at the Department of Justice, and is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps. Follow him on @JosephMoreny.
Emily Treanor is Associate General Counsel and Deputy Chief Compliance Officer of SAP NS2. She previously held positions with the White Collar Defense and Investigations Group at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and as senior legal counsel at Hess Corp.