What the Chief Legal Officer wants from external counsel – a guest post by Ian White

July 9, 2015

A group of CLOs has shared for the last three years thoughts on what the in-house team wants from external lawyers.  This is my brief summary on these perspectives:

  • Understand my business. If you are to be any use to me you must understand my business.  And that does not mean, if I manufacture widgets, that you understand the process of widget making (though that might be useful if you decide upon a change of career!).  I want you to understand the culture,
    know the people – those to trust, those to avoid (hopefully not the CLO!), the risk appetite, the internal workings, and the external market.  I am viewing you as an extension of the internal legal team and that has to be seamless as possible and so you must know my business -not as well as me perhaps but well enough to be a trusted adviser. 
  • Like my business  If I make paperclips it may not be a sexy operation but I probably don’t get out that much as CLO so it may be my life (I am writing this point as a piece of fiction you understand!).  I have to be enthusiastic about the business to my peers at work even if at times that is difficult so you need to share my enthusiasm. 
  • Remember I’m human.  Well most of the time.  The CLO role is stressful and lonely at times.  I have few people to talk to and fewer friends.  So if you are the most brilliant lawyer in the world but arrogant and aggressive it is not going to make for the best of relationships.  I like to work with people I…..like.  A little bit of charm helps; a kind word or two when I have just been into see the CEO who is like a bear with a sore head (and that is on a good day!).  If you are the type of person I can go out for a beer with then you have passed my compatibility test even if you don’t drink alcohol (though I reserve the right to revisit that one). 
  • Listen – really listen.  Few lawyers do.  As Peter Drucker (see below) once said about managers: “The good manager listens first, speaks last.”  Well it was something along those lines.  It applies equally to directors, lawyers, HR officers, accountants – particularly accountants.  Seriously, try and really listen to what your client – the CLO – wants.  It may not be what he or she says.  That’s the challenge. 
  • Deliver  Do what you say you will when you say will.  Or let me know well in advance if you cannot and have a good reason.  I once reported to a US GC who was both a great lawyer and business person.  Unlike many of the people I have reported to who have made the Stasi appear laissez faire he just said “Ian I ask just one thing: no surprises!”  It is as good a mantra as any.  You only get one chance on this. 
  • Be transparent  The matter speaks for itself.  Or as lawyers pretending they are Latin scholars would say res ipsa loquitur. 
  • Find yourself a mentorWho do you admire and respect?  How did they get to where they are?  Find out.  Ask them if they will be a sounding board for you – there is nothing like speaking to someone who has faced the same situation before.  And don’t just stick to lawyers – some of my best mentors have actually been normal people! 
  • Don’t get it wrong and if you do own up  Actually I think this is perhaps too lofty an ambition – the best lawyers get it wrong from time to time.  They are good lawyers because they own up to it.  So if it does happen be open, transparent and act ethically.  And these are qualities about which I could write pages but won’t because it is late… 
  • Remember it’s all about relationships   In engaging you as my external lawyer, I am looking for a long term relationship – you get to know my business (and me) and I get to know you and your firm.  Like all relationships there are good and bad times – the key is to have more of the former than the latter!  But every time you advise me, have this at the back of your mind.  And remember that the more senior you get, the more important your people skills become and less apparent your technical ones should be – the same is true of the Chief Legal Officer (or so my CEO tells me!)
  • Shadow the CLO  One way of finding about the challenges (and joys of course!) which I face is to come and work with me for a couple of days.  You won’t get paid (and don’t bill me!) but you will appreciate my work environment.  You might even decide to become a CLO yourself (don’t worry I will talk you out of it!)
  • Read about businessRead as much about business as you can and frankly anything is better than reading law books!  You’re in business be interested in business!  If I had to recommend anyone to read on business then there are two people: Peter Drucker – an Austrian who became an Englishman and ended his life as an American – someone who began his life as a journalist, became a banker and finally a business academic.  His vision was great; his insight vast.  Secondly Charles Handy who sees business as being far more than simply profit – it has to lead to a better society.  If corporate governance followed Handy rather than numerous codes, corporate scandals would be a thing of the past.  Anyway that’s enough of my soapbox speech!  A recent book well worth reading is Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows by Richard Hytner which is an excellent outline of working with leaders.
  • Finally give something back!  Even if you don’t get to be Senior Partner you’ll probably do pretty well compared with most of the population.  So remember those not so fortunate by helping those people too (and I don’t mean unemployed lawyers although I can give you some names if you want to help!).  Become a trustee of a charity – your business skills may be of real help to a small organisation that is doing something great in the community but has no money.  Or be a volunteer or support for an organisation.  The list of what you can do is endless.

Good luck!


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