There's never been a more exciting time to be a general counsel or in- house legal leader. Today, more executives are seeking legal leaders who are proven strategic, adaptable thinkers to help grow their businesses.
There are a lot of legal roles available and even more attorneys seeking those roles these days, which means you need to set yourself apart not only as a legal leader but also as a functional leader who can propel the business forward. Being a strong attorney is table stakes and having top- tier competence gets you in the door, but what sets you apart is your ability to become an expert in the business.
Stepping into an in-house leader role is not without its challenges. I've experienced firsthand the highs and lows of leading in-house legal teams in high-growth companies. Becoming an effective leader throughout the organization will require stepping outside your comfort zone, but the rewards and professional development are well worth the effort.
Channel Optimism and Embrace Risk
Legal departments have long harbored a reputation in the corporate world as the department of "no," a department focused on risk avoidance. But in a growth-stage company, more is expected of the in-house legal function. There are risks you will inevitably take, and you need to own those risks and embrace the challenges those risks may bring.
Becoming a strategic business partner requires GCs to alter their thinking and look at complex decisions from a broader business perspective first, then turn their focus to any legal implications.
When stakeholders come to you with questions and requests, the answers you provide and the follow-up questions you ask should be aimed at helping to accomplish the goal or solve the problem at issue rather than just directly answering the question as asked. Rise to the challenge, focus on the goal and get invested in the outcome.
Developing solutions and driving results are essential to moving the business forward and raising your profile in the company. Collaborating with colleagues and solving complex problems are necessary to change misconceptions and dissolve stereotypes about an enterprise's legal function. Viewing company objectives through both a business and legal lens allows you to offer unique insight and expertise to your company that can be valuable at the highest level.
The most successful business leaders understand it's impossible to avoid risk all the time and run a prosperous business. Too often, legal leaders default to risk avoidance, which can alienate your CEO and executive team and erode the confidence that you are able to operate from a business mindset. This will cause your peers to be reluctant to ask for your advice on anything other than pure legal matters.
You must balance sound legal advice with the interests of business growth, and in turn, the executive team will come to see you as an essential voice regarding significant decisions.
Establish Strong Legal Operations
Legal operations are the vital resources and processes an in-house legal team needs to support the company's legal needs. Legal ops allow you to get the most out of your department, coordinating the provision of legal services and embracing established, repeatable processes and purpose-driven technology to drive efficiency. There are three core principles you need to follow.
In-house legal teams function best when communication with business units fosters and strengthens relationships across departments. Improving communication processes not only produces better results for the organization as a whole, it raises your profile as a business- first legal team.
Define the essential metrics your team needs to monitor, so you can track key indicators that show where you're succeeding and where you need to improve. This insight is vital for legal teams; quantifying what the team has been working on puts context around your team's day-to-day activities and provides insight to your peers as to your contributions to the business.
Legal departments have been comparatively slow in adopting technology and modern productivity tools. Show you're a forward thinker, automate processes where you can, and deploy technology that helps get things done.
Doing these three things well will help your contributions be more directly impactful in driving business growth. Legal analysis should layer into a meaningful solution to a problem or a strategy to move the business forward in partnership with your more traditional business counterparts.
Often, the legal question is only a small part of a much bigger issue, opportunity, initiative, etc., and you will become a much more valuable partner to the business when you consistently acknowledge and integrate the broader business context surrounding the legal issue or question.
Being able to communicate effectively, leveraging data in a meaningful way, and innovating and using technology where you can will help build your credibility and raise your status as a trusted business adviser and driver of revenue.
Understand Your Clients
As a GC or in-house legal leader, you have stakeholders all throughout the business, all of whom can benefit from sound legal direction and assistance. Understanding who these stakeholders are and how to work with them will be valuable for your growth and for raising your profile within the company. Your in-house clients include the following:
The Executive Team
Businesses recruit a new counsel because they need someone who can mitigate the legal obstacles preventing growth. If you can regularly show your value to leadership, whether the CEO or someone else in the C-suite, you will set yourself up for success.
You can do this through regular reports detailing the great work you and your team have done to advance the organization. Establishing a strong relationship with your CEO will put you on the ground floor of the large, strategic projects that drive revenue and market leadership.
Unless sales are humming, the business is going to stagnate. Finding a way to support the sales team is a fantastic way to build your credibility within the company. An excellent place to start is by helping them streamline the contract process.
Every sale needs a contract drafted, negotiated and approved; if you can increase efficiency with this process, the sales team will view you as a critical part of the sales process rather than just a necessary, check-the-box step in the process.
Delivering quality customer service requires access to the client data residing in contracts, such as renewal dates and implementation deadlines. Quick access to this information is critical for customer success teams in case they need to work with high-risk clients. Being able to put this information in the hands of the customer success department helps that team save troubled deals, which results in retaining that revenue for years to come.
If you're new to your in-house role, take the initiative to connect with your colleagues in these departments to see where you can help, whether on legal issues, process, visibility, or otherwise. Seek out opportunities to work with leadership and other co-workers by asking questions, learning about their pain points and offering assistance where you can.
High-growth businesses need a strong legal leader in order to continue thriving. Reaching out to various stakeholders in the company is an essential step toward establishing new relationships and solving critical problems. Executive leadership will take notice and soon consider you a trusted resource for future problem-solving.
Highlight Critical Accomplishments
A great way to raise your profile and earn a strategic role is to maintain metrics illustrating how the team is helping to close business deals and reach revenue goals faster and easier. Whether you are presenting data from your team to the board or at staff meetings, there are some significant achievements and metrics that will show your value and help them see you as a true partner dedicated to driving the business forward.
What are the big things your team accomplished this quarter? These should be simple to understand and rooted in the overall strategic goals of the broader business. For example:
Did you help secure funding? If you played a critical role during a recent close, tout your success. Come to the meeting excited to celebrate the capital you've helped secure.
Was your company involved in a recent merger or acquisition? Legal functions are always deeply involved in M&A and chances are you understand a deal's impact on the business better than anyone. Whether you helped during contract drafting or M&A negotiations, this is an excellent area to illustrate your business value.
While the sales team tends to get all the credit for bringing on new customers, anyone in an in-house role knows that the legal department plays a core role in closing deals, including contract generation, negotiations and deal approvals.
Keep track of how many nondisclosure agreements, terms of service contracts, and other types of agreements you've created, as well as the number of versions and redline updates you've prepared or turned. These figures will help you quantify the work being performed by the legal team in the context of the overall revenue picture of the business.
The secret to success in all of the above initiatives is to showcase your value as part of a broader organization aimed at revenue growth and organizational advancement. As a legal professional, you offer a unique skill set with tangible value throughout the company. You can see solutions and connect dots that others may not readily see or connect.
Proactively put your strengths to use by identifying potential issues or solutions and conveying them to the appropriate stakeholders. Don't just wait for others to bring a legal matter to you — be proactive, and be present in the business. Finding and solving complex problems will show your worth as a valued business member first, and not just as a legal expert.
If your goal is to raise your profile and expand your influence in the business, you'll need to be deliberate. Leverage your legal skills and specialized knowledge to the benefit of others and the business as a whole, and you will soon become an impactful leader.
This post was originally published by Law360.
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