A while ago, I had a conversation with the head of a successful legal tech company. While we have crossed paths many times, we had only occasionally engaged in substantive discussions, and I was eager to change that. As we chatted and updated one another on all that was going on and forthcoming in our respective corners of the legal tech space, we moved on to potential future vacation plans. I mentioned how I started to learn Spanish to become traditionally multilingual and better connect with others and their respective cultures, mainly friends of mine who were native Spanish speakers.
My friend then brought up the importance of being multilingual in a different context – the context of conveying important ideas and concepts across functions. This idea resonated with me because I immediately remembered all the other times I witnessed how important it was. This was the case because of my career journey spanning different roles in various industries and law departments, all led by other people with varying views of what it means to be a lawyer. What has become a common thread amongst these varied experiences is that each law department spoke its dialect of the same language – the language of the law. Likewise, other departments also spoke the dialect of their unique world, whether IT, product development, marketing, or finance.
What was also a common thread and commonly problematic was that while fluency in specific dialects was evident, equally evident was the lack of the ability to speak in the dialect of other functions, which meant that conveying ideas, concepts, or actions was often challenging and ineffective which made collaborating and accomplishing shared goals slow and frustrating—not understanding how other functions considered and communicated ideas makes working cross-functionally an often-futile exercise. This, in turn, has spillover effects that can impact effective business operation because one department can struggle to be aligned with another to achieve a goal, like a new marketing initiative, a new product launch or product development, or compliance with a new regulation or law.
The practice of law attracted me because I saw the role of a lawyer as a puzzle solver fitting different pieces together and saw the role of an in-house counsel as being one able to bridge between various departments since laws and regulations can impact a range of stakeholders and departments. Yet, in practice, this was not always the case. There were times when I felt like I was working in one world and other functions were working in their worlds, and nary the different worlds overlapped. It was no surprise when problems arose with various initiatives because of the lack of collaboration.
I recall one time early in my career when I was tasked with reviewing a complex product development agreement. I started to read it and immediately felt lost. There were references to things I had not encountered in my career before, like an A/B test, Cost of Delay framework, and Continuous Integration. I felt like I was reading another language. I knew that I needed help to understand what I was reading, so I connected with the business leader of the agreement, and we worked together to understand the deal. Other lawyers on my team seemed surprised that I engaged the business leader in this task, but I knew that I needed to have someone translate these terms into plain English to do my job effectively. I, however, didn’t just take the time to learn these business terms. I also took the initiative to educate this individual on the meaning and importance of some of the legal terms I often looked for and negotiated. As a result of us working together on this project, I quickly became their go-to legal source. An effective cross-functional relationship was formed that lasted the entirety of my time with this company.
As my career further evolved and my passion for legal tech and the relationship between technology and the practice of law and delivery of legal services grew, I knew that to succeed in this tech-forward world, learning how to speak the language of business, e.g., numbers and quantitative data would make me more valuable to the companies that I was a part of. I also needed to translate legalese into English to convey important legal ideas, concepts, and risks to the people needing to understand them and often act in response to them. This is critical for a lawyer, yet many lawyers seem oblivious to its importance.
While working for a SaaS company, I quickly realized that while I was well-versed in the legal intricacies of a SaaS agreement, I was not well-versed in the company's specific business. I set up meetings with key business leaders, like the enterprise sales leader, the chief financial officer, and the product development lead. It was these conversations that taught me the things that these individuals cared about and how they spoke about their work. I was able to learn the language of the business over a few months and was able to convey my concerns or questions in their business language so that they could understand and alleviate the concerns and answer the questions that I had.
Yet, being multilingual has benefited me on the professional front and the personal front as well. Being multilingual has allowed me to connect with others who come from vastly different backgrounds than myself and learn from them as they learn from me. Whether it is a post on social media, a blog post, a webinar, or a live meeting, making ideas accessible regardless of background allows them to spread more quickly and be understood by many.
Take the subject of legal tech. The term has a variety of purported definitions, and to challenge matters further, technology can induce fear in many and confusion in others. To cut through the hype and reduce the confusion of others when I posted about elements of the legal tech space, I purposely use plain language and simple terms to help make the topic more accessible to individuals regardless of their technological fluency.
People are attracted to those who speak in accessible ways meaning those who discuss and talk about ideas using simple sentences, words, and anecdotes that can help the intended audience or listeners relate to what they are saying and how they are saying it. We cannot assume that even an audience of our peers or colleagues may necessarily relate or understand all of what we are trying to say. This isn’t possible if they can’t understand you or struggle to understand you. The last thing you want to be in this dynamic and globalized community is an obstacle for others because of how you communicate.
A final aspect of being multilingual is to be authentic. Put another way; others want to feel like they can trust what you are saying. In practice, this means that rather than try to shield who you are from others but use candor and honesty with others. Suppose you need to say something that might arouse strong emotions in others, acknowledge that before continuing, especially if it directly impacts someone or their job. All too often, we try to shield potential negative impacts of an idea or a suggestion when doing so creates the opposite effect of what we intend. If we can recognize the challenge that is about to be placed on someone else because of their role or responsibilities doing so will engender trust and help maintain or even build a bridge from your function to theirs.
Becoming multilingual, whether it is being able to speak two or more different languages, whether it is legalese and English or English and Spanish, doesn’t occur overnight. It takes practice. It takes dedication. It takes focus. I am in the middle of my journey, and I have already spent years. It is never too late to start but starting you must if you want to position yourself for lasting success in the world of today and the world of tomorrow.