Earning a Seat at the Table – IntroductionPosted: April 19, 2011
About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists in telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop.
A common complaint of many lawyers, particularly in-house attorneys, is that we are always brought in “too late” by our clients. And, most attorneys feel this is the client’s fault. Perhaps, but, there is a reason why clients don’t involve their lawyers earlier in the process: it is about trust and credibility.
Many clients view their lawyers as tools, effective tools, but tools nonetheless that the client deploys when and if they see fit. When we are not being viewed as tools, it can get even worse, sometimes we are viewed as naysayers, deal killers, Dr. No’s. We so desperately want more; we want to be part of the team, but those pesky clients just won’t invite us. Therein lies the problem: we cannot wait to be invited to the team, we need to make the team. We must earn our seat at the table.
Easier said than done, of course, but it is achievable. Ben Heineman, one of the foremost thinkers on corporate governance and corporate legal practice, writes eloquently about this topic. I look at the solution in more prosaic terms.
To start with, you need to be a superb practitioner of the law, so that your client trusts you implicitly as to your legal advice. But, that is table stakes. There are a lot of superb technical attorneys, who never really make the team. Those who truly distinguish themselves in house build on a foundation of technical skill and add to it six other skills (the six C’s):
- Exhibit a true passion for the Company, its products, its business operations, its culture – If you are not buying, they won’t let you sell.
- Assist the Organization to Think Critically – carefully, deftly, assist the organization you represent think more critically – it is a key skill you possess and from which the business can benefit greatly.
- Help the Team Communicate and Develop Consensus – Often times the in-house lawyer can be a valuable go between, helping the various members of the business team develop consensus. Moreover, great lawyers are great communicators and can use that skill to assist their internal clients in communicating on numerous matters, not only legal issues.
- Serve as the Conscience of the organization.
- Be Courageous – In this day and age, where seconding guessing in-house lawyers has become a blood sport, it is easy to tell your client no; no is rarely second guessed. And, as Elihu Root notes above, no is sometimes the right answer and it takes courage to say it to a tough executive. But, sometimes yes is the right answer, even if you know that some misguided reviewer is going to second guess that answer. And, that takes real courage too. It is said that courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway. Clients like those with courage on their teams.
I intend to post on each of these “C’s” in more depth in the upcoming months. But, if you have reactions now, please go to my blog, www.relianceoncounsel.com , and post a comment.