I know at first glance the notion of “training your colleagues” may seem a little offensive and perhaps condescending. I intend to be neither. One of the things I try to be very aware of as a parent is how my behaviour creates incentives or disincentives for my child’s actions. I work hard not to reinforce negative behaviour. I don’t give in when tears come falling from my child’s beautiful brown eyes. Even though it would be easier to acquiesce, I don’t do it to stop my child’s whining, perfectly pitched (it seems) to push me over the edge. Conversely, I try to stand my ground when I am the target of a mercenary sweetness designed to persuade me to do something I’ve already said I won’t or to reverse a consequence flowing from my child’s poor behaviour.
In the workplace, the behaviours are typically not quite so dramatic but laying the foundation for your own effectiveness means clearly establishing with your colleagues the scope of your role as well as what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable. It also involves ensuring that your own behaviour doesn’t subvert your intentions.
As a less-experienced lawyer, both in private practice and when I moved in-house, I was more inclined to move heaven and earth to meet my colleagues’ deadlines. However, as in-house lawyers, we are seen as a resource for all of our fellow employees and this is a good thing because risks arise at all levels of the organization. The downside is, of course, that there is no retainer to pay, there are no fees, and in the end, no natural barrier to discourage our fellow employees from asking for help.
To each person who contacts me by e-mail, phone, or by walking into my office, his or her request is important and often urgent. However, your role is to put all of those important and urgent things in priority based on relative importance and urgency, while making sure that your own list of tasks — things you think are important to undertake — are considered and moved ahead, too. No one else understands your “to do” list like you do.
Rank doesn’t equal priority
The nature of the work is what should govern what gets done, not the rank of the person requesting that the work be done. Work from your CEO will always naturally get your attention, but this must be tempered by your own views of the organization’s legal priorities, as well as commitments you have made. The same goes for peers.
Do not compromise the quality of your work
My work is not perfect and that’s a good thing. I worry about getting the important things right. I try hard not to let colleagues set unrealistic deadlines that will mean that I cannot get the important things right.
One thing I’ve noticed about last-minute assignments is that they usually come from the same people, and their urgency more often arises from the other person’s failure to be organized. This is where having a clear sense of the importance of not reinforcing negative behaviours comes in very handy. Set your colleague’s expectations such that he or she understands that you will need to take time to do the important things well, and ensure the colleague plans accordingly.
Subscribe to the notion that “someone else’s lack of planning is not your emergency.”
Respond, don’t react
Emergencies don’t always arise because of someone else’s lack of planning. They may arise because your colleague perceives a need to immediately respond to a given situation. For many of us faced with a negative situation, action of any sort seems the preferable course. Training your colleagues to step back and conduct a calm assessment in situations like these is invaluable for your organization. Don’t accept at face value that immediate action is necessary. Focus on assisting your colleague to respond rather than react.
Do not do your colleague’s work for him or her
I recently attended an event where one of the other speakers cautioned in-house counsel against becoming the organization’s scribe. It’s great advice that illustrates my next point. As lawyers, we are good at a lot of things — writing is one of them. This does not mean we should take on the task of writing for our colleagues for whom writing is more challenging.
Again, your behaviour can reinforce or create the opportunity to use your skills in a way that doesn’t advance the legal interests of your organization. If, in the course of your legal reviews, you regularly rewrite press releases, marketing collateral, or grant applications for stylistic reasons, your colleagues will come to rely on you and you will notice that the need to rewrite becomes the status quo. Avoid the urge to rewrite and, if something is unclear, send it back pointing out the lack of clarity.
Be sure that you clearly understand and communicate your role and avoid getting pulled into doing non-legal work others can do. Focus on using your legal expertise and ensuring the organization is getting the best legal support possible.
Do not let colleagues ‘pass the risk buck’
As in-house counsel, one of our main roles is to quickly assess risk and make decisions and recommendations. If we’re working at the level of general counsel, this is a critical skill. Once your colleagues realize that you’re pretty good at that, and that you’re willing to make difficult calls, you’ll find yourself being asked to make judgment calls and decisions that aren’t necessarily yours to make.
The colleague who doesn’t want to make those decisions is quite happy to be able to say that he or she made it because the lawyer recommended it. Be sure to identify which decisions you need to make and make them. By the same token, be very clear when it’s a business-risk decision that your colleague should be making based on his or her assessment of the overall risk (including legal considerations) and don’t let colleagues pass the buck for these types of decisions.
Respect your own time
If you don’t respect your time, your colleagues won’t either. I am the first one to stay late, work long hours, and do whatever it takes to get a project or assignment done, if necessary. I don’t like the “9 to 5” mentality and am committed to being there when my organization needs me.
However, as I get older and wiser (insert smiley face here), I’m much more difficult to persuade that all of these things are necessary in the normal course. If your colleagues know you’ll stay late and work weekends at the drop of a hat, they will learn to ask you to do that. If they know that you have commitments and priorities that will mean they cannot count on you routinely dropping everything to respond to last minute requests, they will learn to plan, organize, and use your time wisely. Training your colleagues to respect your time is crucial.
All of the tips in this column rest on the key not-to-be-forgotten fact that none of your colleagues is your client — your client is your enterprise or organization. To perform your role effectively, both you and your non-legal colleagues must understand that your first duty is to the entity. No one individual can dictate your priorities, or compromise the quality of the legal service you provide to the organization.