Tell me something I can take away and do…

January 4, 2009

Speaking with one general counsel the other day, I was asked a not untypical question: “What can you tell me that I could implement today that will help me and my team become more effective?”. I guess we all hope there might be something we can do better that is relatively easy and inexpensive to fix, but too often we spend our time searching for complex, clever and often expensive solutions.

So let’s get back to some basics; here are my top ten things that you could implement today:

  1. Get a mentor. Find someone inside or outside of your business, someone whose judgement you trust to be your sounding board and guide. I have had the same mentor for nearly twenty years; in fact I now know him so well, I sometimes don’t even have to speak with him because I can just imagine what he would say! General Counsel is a lonely role, without a great deal of peer support and it is not always easy to network. It makes great sense therefore to have someone you trust to discuss your plans, hopes, fears and ambitions. It is possibly the most important appointment to your team you will ever make.
  2. You will almost always feel under-resourced; when I discuss headcount with senior lawyers they invariably tell me, “If I had just one more lawyer…” The way to fix this is not to recruit, but to decide what you can realistically deliver to your business with one fewer lawyer; manage activity to that headcount and, lo and behold, you will have your extra lawyer. This is not as daft an idea as it may sound, because in any event, by the time you account for holiday and sickness leave, you already have less resource than your spreadsheets and budgets tell you.
  3. Prioritise not just by urgency, but by where in your business the issues arise; in other words focus the majority of your time and energy where your business makes the most money, carries the most risk or where reputational harm can be inflicted. This is unsophisticated alignment, but it is crucial for your credibility. As one CEO once explained to me, “Put your lawyers where the profit is, not where there is most noise. “
  4. Articulate value all the time – not just in WIP reports, but in all your informal and formal interaction with colleagues. “Why should any business employ you? ” is a question you should live with every day; is it because you are cheaper, more accessible, more knowledgeable; because you pre-empt, avoid, mitigate, train, inform, deliver? Whatever it is, make sure it is known and understood.
  5. Focus more on delivering great service and less on content. Clearly content has to be accurate and relevant; but is it also timely, accessible, understandable, uncomplicated, directional, unambiguous, thoughtful and given to the right people, in the right way at the right time? I am in no doubt personally that delivery is more important than content.
  6. Train for soft skills in a systematic, thoughtful and planned way. Typically in-house teams spend 80% of their training budget on legal update training, but surely we know enough law (or we can at least find out what the law is)? Someone said to me once that we know the most law the day after our last finals exam; from that day onward we lose our knowledge of laws and replace it with experience. Our soft skills (influencing, presentation, communication, negotiation etc) are the means by which we convey our expertise and judgement; without them we are almost impotent as advisers. So make sure you train these skills and rely less on a sort of professional osmosis for your team’s improvement.
  7. Be conversant, at least, with your own business’s profit and loss accounts and balance sheets. You will never be credible in your business if you are not able to interpret how your business makes money, invests in its future, manages cost, cashflow and distributes income. You don’t have to be an accountant, but you do have to be comfortable with and interested in the financial framework that underpins your world.
  8. Go to lunch at different times! How trite is that?! But it is astonishing how we get into routines; we lunch at the same time, sit at the same table, with the same colleagues etc. Our work, however, is predicated on know-how and much of that know-how is only useful when our informal networks are as good as they can be. So called “water-cooler” conversations are vital and the more people we are connected to the better we deliver our service. Going to lunch at different times may not be a panacea to networking, but at least make sure you give some thought to how you can be better connected within your business.
  9. Use email less and voicemail more. We all say the same things about email “Couldn’t do without it…” etc etc, but equally we complain that it doesn’t carry nuance, is too easy, too blunt, too quick. We treat it almost as if it were an informal conversation, when often it becomes a document of record. Voicemail however carries a level of nuance, literally tone of voice, a sense of priority and genuine urgency as well as empathy and thoughtfulness. Something I often ask new recruits is not to answer any internal email by email, but in the first two weeks or so to ring or call on colleagues; it is the quickest and best way to accelerate their introduction into the business.
  10. Finally, say “No” sometimes. You are not a full service team, you never were and you never will be. And you will not be thought less of either; many non-lawyer colleagues mistake your willingness to do anything as a sign of your underutilisation! In any event relationships are established in business by doing the right things at the right time; be admired for your efficiency not for being pathologically compliant. The frenetic pace, long hours and crisis management that characterise many in-house teams are not features that are generally admired; they are instead thought to be rather bewildering and, if the team was much bigger (not a funny little enclave of legaldom), it would come under much closer management scrutiny.

So, there you are, ten points with no implementation cost, no cap-ex, no op-ex…no brainer.

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