7 Things in-house lawyers should be doing

Many in-house legal teams adopt the view that they’re a law firm with the business as their sole client. I disagree with this approach entirely. Taking an ‘us and them’ stance reduces lawyers to a ‘check’ on strategy rather than being part of the strategic team.

 After all, every business needs movers, shakers and breakers - the people who set the strategic direction, do the deals and protect against risk. And as an in-house lawyer, you have the chance to be all three, so long as you build enough influence across the business.

 So if you want to become one of the people that really matter, here are my 7 tips on how.

1. Know your business and its clients

To be seen as someone who’s carrying out more than a mere administrative function, you need to understand how the business works: its day-to-day operations and pain points, how the money flows, where it’s headed and even its processes for doing deals.

 If you want proof of this in action, one Australian company sends its senior lawyers out to its call centres and gets them to listen into calls. That way they know how the agreements and contracts they draft play out on the frontline and it forces them to put themselves in the shoes of the people affected by their work.

Think about how you can do the same in your business.

2. Come down from your tower

While we’re on the theme of getting to understand the business, it’s worth noting that the core of influence is about knowing people and relating to them. So come down from your ivory tower and start mixing with people from across the business: from the management team to the people on the floor.

 I find an easy way to do this is to schedule a regular catch up with a different person and just quiz them on what they’re do. Investing in a half hour a week can reap enormous dividends.

 At the same time, you should also be keeping connected with other in-house lawyers and learning from them. Don’t lock yourself away from what’s going on in legal land. I’d recommend going to as many events as you can both through the Law Society’s Corporate Law Committee and the Association of Corporate Counsel.

3. Make the CFO your bestie

Everyone matters, but in my experience no one matters more in business these days than the CFO.

However, because they keep asking us to do more with less, many in-house lawyers have taken to seeing the CFO as the enemy. Don’t make that mistake.

The CFO is the one person you need to be constantly proving your value to. So get to know them and, when you do, impress them by speaking their language.

That means using numbers where possible (that’s what really talks to them). And backing up everything you do with solid research.

4. Attack your own processes

A great piece in the Harvard Business Review, Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption, suggests that the legal teams who flourish in this period of enormous change are those prepared to question what they do, unbundle the service they provide, and always look for better ways. Think about the work you do and how you do it. Is there any way you can cut costs? Are there new technologies or better processes you can apply? And how well are you suppliers doing their job.

One very successful business, Cardinal Health, has a policy of turning over 25% of suppliers every year, just to keep their roster fresh. Be prepared to make the hard calls in your own department and move your own suppliers on too if things aren’t working.

5. Act like you’re one of them

Lawyers often think that to sound professional means sounding like a lawyer. By that I mean they use legal phrases and terminology they picked up at law school. Nothing turns normal people off more quickly.

If you want to really exert influence across the organisation, you need to be able to speak the language that the people in your business use, not legalese.

So familiarise yourself with their terms and phrases. Sit in on meetings to find out how they speak and start using their terminology rather than your own.

And, most of importantly of all, bring your skills into their domain. You’re probably an expert negotiator, mediator and many other things, so use these talents beyond the confines of the legal department where you can.

6. Keep risk in its place

Few things annoy businesspeople more than lawyers who take a blanket approach to risk.

There is risk in everything we do, but a good in-house lawyer gauges the likelihood of something as well the likely outcome if things do go bad. For me, that’s the essence of commerciality.

So when you’re giving advice, make sure it’s real world and practical. Don’t default to no. Sometimes good really is good enough.

7. Think big

If you really want to start exerting your influence, you need to start thinking macro, not just micro. So keep coming up with ideas and strategies that will contribute to the bottom line across the whole business and make sure the people who matter within the business hear about them - not just the legal team.

But thinking big doesn’t just mean thinking about the strategic direction of the business. It also, by implication, means thinking strategically about your own career.

Many great companies pride themselves on being a business of leaders, and that includes their lawyers. For instance, Carmel Mulhern, GC at Telstra, has a profile that reaches well beyond legal circles.

Make that your goal too. Look for opportunities to speak at industry and business events and publish articles that reach beyond the legal world and into the business one.

After all, the number of legally-educated CEOs and senior businesspeople is on the rise. Why shouldn’t it be you too one day?

This article orginally appeared on the Law Society of NSW website

Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping law and accounting practices sharpen their business development practices, attract and retain clients and become more profitable.