Hahn Law Firm

Top Ten Relationship-Building Tips Learned as In-House Counsel

Creating and preserving relationships is a key to success in the role as trusted in-house legal advisor. From our years in-house we’ve gleaned the following tips to establishing an effective relationship with the internal client.

1.  Understand the business. Understanding the industry segment in general and the specific client in particular will help you offer efficient, pertinent advice. A legal department that operates efficiently, knows the company's business and operations, and keeps in mind the company's key objectives is a competitive advantage.

2.  Become a member of the team.   Rather than being seen as a "necessary evil" that must be cleared before deals close or projects are completed, be seen as a valuable contributor to the team. Seek to manage risk instead of avoiding it. Most companies are about maximizing profit while lawyers are about minimizing risk.   This difference can lead to lawyers being seen as nay-saying hindrances to profit-making. Rather than shooting down ideas, if something seems problematic, explain the risks and how risk might be minimized through alternative approaches.

3.  Stay approachable. You should always be a pleasure to work with. Even when deadlines and workload are pressing, company personnel should feel comfortable contacting you to discuss important matters and ask questions. Having valuable guidance doesn’t help the company if personnel are hesitant to “bother” you to seek it. Although though much legal work requires deep concentration and those calls and door knocks derail your train of thought, remain able to politely switch gears and talk about the reason you were interrupted. Consider asking for a moment to jot down your immediate thoughts to “bookmark” your mental place before engaging with the caller / knocker. If you must have some uninterrupted time to concentrate on drafting or untangling a thorny issue, develop a method to let personnel know you’re momentarily unavailable. A simple door sign indicating a time frame when you are unavailable and when you will be available again can work wonders.

4.  Set expectations with internal clients. Work with company personnel to set reasonable expectations of what will be delivered and when. Setting such expectations will avoid negative feedback when you deliver a great product but it is later than the client assumed it would arrive, or conversely, when you deliver right away but the work is less than the client was expecting.

5.  Be responsive. Personnel shouldn’t feel like sending things to legal is sending them to a black hole. Respond to emails and telephone calls promptly, even if that response is that you won’t be able to substantively respond until the next week or so due to other priorities.   Moreover, advice should be directly relevant to the questions asked. Unless specifically asked to expound broadly on a legal topic, keep advice targeted to the particular set of facts and issues.

6.  Actively keep team members and management informed. Even when handling matters that seem independently legal, it is important that the company understands the status of these matters so they can exercise proper judgment about the next steps. Management shouldn’t have to guess where something stands or be left to incorrectly assume something is completed when it is not because unexpected issues arose.

7.  Be heard at management meetings. As a lawyer, you often have the ability to see issues from both sides, and avoid the sometimes self-centric view that comes with Type A senior management. Point out opposing views and seek common ground.

8.  Speak up. If you see something that doesn’t appear appropriate or sound, make sure the stake-holders are aware of it. Don’t assume that everything has been properly vetted. Ask questions in a neutral way. It is easier to prevent fires than put them out.  Moreover, if things go south, consider how uncomfortable it will be to explain that you, as the legal advisor, noticed something didn’t seem quite right but didn’t speak up about it.

9.  Be clear with outside counsel about expectations. Do you want a 10-page memo, or will a conclusory email suffice? Getting more than you need will result in explanations to management about larger than expected outside counsel bills. Getting less may not satisfy legal or business requirements. Keeping outside counsel expectations aligned with your and management’s expectations preserves all these valuable relationships and your role as a cost-conscious advisor.  

10.  Don’t take things personally. Even if the company decides to do something you’ve said is unwise or not the best legal approach, there can be good business reasons for the chosen action. You’ve done your job by giving sound counsel and shouldn’t be offended if your advice isn’t taken. Of course, if you believe the chosen conduct presents unreasonable risks, make sure you’ve taken the matter up the ladder as much as you can.

Top Ten Practice Tips Learned as Inside Counsel
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