Imagine you are sitting at your desk at 8:30am. You are just settling in to the office at the start of another week. At 8:35am, the head of your largest sales division in North America stops by your desk. He is a bit of a hothead and a bit of a cowboy who likes to operate outside the standard norms of your company. He states flatly that he needs to talk to you.
He then proceeds to explain he just had yet another deal stopped in its tracks by legal and says this is yet another example why he and his team consider your department the department of no, the department that gets in the way of deals, the department that is more than anything else, a roadblock to avoid at all costs. You see the writing on the wall and brace for what is about to come next. Yet, you are pleasantly surprised by what he says next.
“You, however, are someone that my folks enjoy coming to and someone that my people see as a resource. We don’t love everything that you have to say, but we at least can count on getting an explanation that we can understand of why we can’t do x or y. Thank you. Now…about that XCV deal…where do we stand with it?”
After quickly getting over your shock at being complimented by the words that he just said to you, you quickly shift to the deal and discuss its status with the sales lead.
A company’s legal department often develops the reputation of being the department to avoid, the non-revenue generating departing that is a necessarily evil, a department one hopes and aims to have limited dealings with. The legal department is often seen as not revenue-generating, unlike the sales department or marketing department. Regardless of the veracity of such statements, you have the power to change your department’ reputation if it has this reputation. Even in the case where it does not (and you should be thankful for that!), improvement is always possible and should be welcomed.
There is a crucial element here that I have alluded to, but not yet explicitly stated. This element, when understood and applied effectively, is often the best way to overcome a reputation like that described earlier. So, what am I talking about here?
Simply put, when legal and the other functions can work collaboratively and see each other as equal business partners, there is a greater probability of sustaining a trusting and productive relationship and, as a result, deals are done the right way and the company can more easily avoid costly litigation. Now, how about the question of how?
Naturally, as is so often the case in the law and, more broadly in life, there is not a single right answer to how one develops and maintains this kind of relationship. However, being seen as a partner and as a resource starts with one simple notion – the idea of knowing not just how your function works with other functions, but truly getting to know how those other functions operate and building lasting relationships with key stakeholders in those other functions.
In terms of where to begin, let me offer a few simple proposals for how to engage in getting to know your key stakeholders and the business itself:
Read. Read the sales material that your company produces. Find and read company materials that provide details about what your company does, how your company does it what it does, and what distinguishes your company from competitors in all of these respects.
Talk. Talk to your sales leads. For example, perhaps you worked with one on an NDA. Ask them to tell you about their job and why they believe in what they are selling. Talk to other sales leads as well as other key business heads and learn more about what they do. Talk to them about what issues they often encounter with your department and vice versa. Doing so will allow both parties to understand the perspective you each are approaching a particular request or task with.
Actively listen. Active listening is not just nodding your head and repeatedly saying things like okay and yes. Truly listen to what others are telling you, particularly business leads. Read their body language, hear their tone, and take copious notes on what you learn from your salespeople and business heads. Listen carefully to not just what they say, but what they don’t say. What things have they said that gets them energized and what things have they said that does just the opposite.
Working in-house provides a golden opportunity for any corporate lawyer. The opportunity presents in two ways. First, you are presented with the chance to practice law in a challenging and far different way than practicing in a firm setting. You also are presented the chance to develop your business acumen through being able to be closer to the business that you represent and, through that closeness, getting to understand how the business works. This knowledge of your business will allow you to be more creative and flexible when negotiating agreements with other parties. Your understanding of the business allows you to know what risks you need to minimize at all costs and what ones you perhaps can concede to some extent or be a little more forgiving of.
Certainly much of this deserves more in-depth treatment and such treatment certainly will be coming in future blog posts. For now, though, just know that the person who wrote all of the above is indeed someone who has experienced all of what has been described.
As a final note, do not think that once you take these steps and have developed your knowledge of the business that is all you need to do. Businesses change, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. You need to stay ahead of the curve by not just having the types of conversations described above just once, but having them periodically.
Much like your legal skills sometimes need refreshing, as will your business knowledge. Today’s world is a dynamic one. You need to be dynamic as well.