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Offering Advice Is Not Enough: In-House Lawyers Must Be Leaders

May 31, 2022, 8:00 AM

As an attorney, how often do you hear yourself say, “I give legal advice, I don’t make the actual decisions”? Especially if you have a law firm background, it is easy to view the legal function as limited to counseling those in the business who make the actual calls. Lawyers weigh the pros and cons of any scenario, provide the “on the one hand, on the other hand” analysis, and leave the ultimate say to someone else, right?

That may have worked in the past, but simply providing top quality advice is no longer enough in today’s market. In-house lawyers who want to maximize their impact must be willing to adopt a much more operational approach to their job.

This means gaining a deep understanding of business processes and managing diverse teams of legal and non-legal personnel. It means being willing to take risks. And, most importantly, it means supplying concrete solutions and making decisions on issues that may fall well outside the typical legal portfolio. In other words, it means being a real leader.

Know Your Business Operations Like You Know the Law

As in-house lawyers, we like to think of ourselves as industry-agnostic. Whether we support technology, pharmaceuticals, energy, manufacturing, retail, or another field, we are confident in our ability to parachute in and handle whatever associated litigation, investigation, or transaction is at issue. As long as we have a mastery of the law and the process, we can apply that within any business operation.

But the combination of increasingly expansive and complex regulatory regimes, constant technological and business shifts within the modern global economy, and management expectations that lawyers serve as go-to resources for an infinite range of issues means that having a high-level knowledge of operations will not cut it.

The business is asking not only for an analysis of options under the law but for our opinions and guidance on critical (and even not so critical) business-related decisions.

Accordingly, lawyers today must have both a deep expertise within their specific industry, as well as an intimate understanding of how their organization operates. It means having a thorough, top to bottom understanding of the products and processes that drive your business.

If you have a sales function, spend shoulder-to-shoulder time alongside them for the entire process from customer pitch to contracting to deal closing. If you have product engineers or coders, spend time learning what they do and what issues they face. Better yet, seek out opportunities to be embedded in or take on an additional role within operations or another functional area like finance or human resources.

As attorneys, our analytical and communication skills, coupled with the fact that we are involved in so many issues, give us unlimited potential to serve as organizational leaders.

Don’t Follow the Path of Least Resistance

As counsel we know how transactions and lawsuits can go south and are naturally trained to be risk averse. But one of the best ways to lose credibility with management is to be a constant naysayer. Whether it be legal or compliance issues, if you are regularly an impediment to growth and cannot couple your advice with proactive, positive solutions, it is only a matter of time before you will be replaced with someone more business-friendly.

This is not to say you should throw caution to the wind and take absurd risks. Sometimes legal counsel is the last guardrail protecting an organization and its leaders from making truly horrendous decisions. But if you are protecting your organization and not helping to grow its business or advance its mission, then you are only doing half your job.

Say Yes to Managing Non-Legal Projects, People

At any given time, internal counsel can expect to be pulled into a wide range of projects. Whether a potential acquisition, a restructuring, revamping corporate information systems, or managing an audit, counsel is frequently looked to not only to address the legal issues but also to manage the project from start to finish.

As attorneys, we are generally organized and effective at managing time and competing demands. But project management is its own skill set which involves planning, executing, documenting, monitoring, and constantly communicating with stakeholders to achieve an objective. While some companies may retain external contractors or consultants to run projects, others will look to their in-house legal team, which likely has no formal training in project management, to oversee and manage its projects.

In addition, the structure and organization of a legal department can vary considerably company to company and business to business. Traditionally non-legal functions like contracts, internal audit, risk management, investigations, or compliance may report up through legal. This means that general counsels are often responsible for managing diverse teams of non-lawyers on traditionally non-legal initiatives.

Instead of recoiling from these types of projects, lawyers today need to embrace these opportunities and step up to the plate.

None of this is to say our primary mission as lawyers has changed, which is to provide sound legal advice. But to be truly effective in-house, attorneys today must be able to supply not only legal answers but also strategic ones.

Lawyers are adaptive, agile and critical thinkers who are more than capable of managing non-legal projects and personnel and making operational decisions impacting the bottom line. Those who do can prove their value within an organization, earn the respect of the business and, most importantly, position themselves as successful leaders.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Joseph Moreno is the general counsel and chief compliance officer of SAP National Security Services (SAP NS2®). He was previously a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a national security prosecutor with the Department of Justice, and is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps. Follow him at @JosephMoreno.

Emily Treanor is the associate general counsel and deputy chief compliance officer of SAP NS2. She previously held positions in the White Collar Defense and Investigations Group at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and as senior legal counsel at Hess Corp.