- Learning about the business is essential to succeed in-house.
- Be prepared to simplify and “de-legalize” language.
- Be ready to dive in and help out using a business-oriented mindset.
For an occasion I cannot recall, I was asked to produce a short piece of practical advice for members of my company’s Legal Department, which included Compliance and Regulatory Affairs, on how to succeed in an in-house counsel role. Too often, I saw in-house professionals trying to replicate outside law firms’ processes and communication plans. I saw that strategy go poorly for in-house counsel, and yet, no other training had been presented on how to navigate the in-house environment and challenges. As Senior Deputy General Counsel at a Fortune 10 company, I oversaw a large number of employees. We had legal and compliance professionals at all levels of professional experience, career advancement, and years in-house. In this Top Ten, I chose to center my advice on the letter “L”, and identified the 10 themes -- or characteristics -- I saw as critical to succeeding in-house:
- Listen: Seek to understand the problem as presented, focusing on the how and why, by listening to the business professionals first. Do not put legal, regulatory, or compliance constructs or assumptions into the matter before learning the facts at a very deep level.
- Learn: 1) Find out what else is being done to address some or part of the issues that the person sharing may not know; and 2) understand and use as a prism how the company runs - especially, for example, how it classifies and uses capital; its operational strengths and opportunities; its technology and systems; its sales and business goals; its financial targets and success against those; and its culture. Consider how such aspects might impact the client you have been listening to or the problem presented.
- Lexicon: Delegalize. Don’t include references to citations. Translate the law and regulations into simpler, business-focused terms. Resist using footnotes and lengthy caveats.
- Loam: Get your hands dirty. Don’t say, “this is beneath me” or “someone else should be doing this”. There are fair and efficient divisions of labor, but no one is above getting down in the muck to help resolve issues. It will give you creative insight into problem-solving.
- Loop: From the above and other sources, gather data and create feedback loops about what the data shows as solutions to business problems. And make no mistake: the job only begins when issues are identified (whether purely legal or not). Drive the solutions yourself, and cage the urge to frame those as a legal or compliance directives.
- Latitude and Longitude: Think deep into the issues, but make sure you look across as well. Adopt an end-to-end view; make sure you are not breaking something else by solving the present issue. You do this in part by asking about interconnectivity with other activities and areas at your company. It’s rare that a single issue implicates or impacts only one unit.
- Level: Ensure you are dealing with the right level personnel on matters. It’s fair to contextualize whether the person reporting on the issue has the full grasp of it and is endorsed by management to solve the challenge. Also, think of your own level in the organization, and do not hold back bad news. Hoping things will get better is fine, but hope is not a business strategy.
- Look: Give the situation or subject matter a “fresh look” and a “second look”. Even if you have seen the issue before, step back and rethink your prior approach. Critical facts may have changed, from operational detail to risk tolerance. A fresh look also allows you to quality-check your prior work.
- Labyrinth: Consider this in the light of all of the above, and the final bullet below. The law is confusing, intimidating, and always changing. See yourself as the guide to the labyrinth for the business presented with such challenges, and so do in a more business-friendly way that you were taught at firms and in law school.
- Lambent Light: If you are in the labyrinth, you might need a “light”. Allow yourself to be like a lambent flame, flickering sufficiently but not burning luminously. Be humble, doing what is sufficient and necessary to help the business by being serviceable, and by being a leader who does so by influence. You don’t need or want the spotlight. You are there to maintain and grow the business at a profit and/or achieve its core mission. That is what should burn brightly.
By training and experience, professionals who work in Legal, Compliance and Regulatory Affairs professionals possess skills that have many business-worthy applications. The ability to communicate succinctly, the penchant for doggedly finding out the facts, the understanding of disputes and how to negotiate, the ability to advocate learned from school and training, are all examples of taking skill sets from the legal profession and applying them more broadly.
In this Top Ten, I am not suggesting you ever stop in your quest for legal or compliance expertise. All I am suggesting is that the way you use your expertise and position may help advance your career, by considering the kind of practical advice set out above and that is not always shared in-house.
Check out Additional ACC Resources:
ACC Collection: Leadership Skills
“The 10 C's of Great Leadership”, by Peter Stark, Peter Barron Stark Companies, ACC Resource Library, September 11, 2019
Join ACC Networks (ACC members only): New to In-House Network; Law Department Management Network
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