The senior management challenge for in-house: What does the business really need?

Landing a coveted job in-house comes with many struggles, but once inside a legal department, one of the most challenging aspects can be deciphering what really drives senior management and how to deliver real value.

While legal departments often hold a certain level of respect and autonomy with the C-suite, it can be a bit of a learning curve in the beginning to find the sweet spot and the right allies for in-house to work their magic, according to a panel of senior in-house lawyers speaking Monday at the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Law Department Leadership 2.0 conference in Toronto.

The education of the general counsel can begin by first getting a firm grasp of what the business you work for needs to run more effectively, says Richard Brait, general counsel with Siemens Canada and one of Canadian Lawyer InHouse Innovatio Award winners. One of the best ways for a lawyer to get to know his or her business is to get in the trenches.

“The best way to know the business is to embed yourself in it,” said Brait, emphasizing that Siemens has an “ownership culture” that encourages employees at all levels to find solutions for business problems.

Matthew Snell, general counsel and secretary with IBM Canada, said it’s important to figure out early who the who the real decision-maker is versus a “bystander.”

“I think it’s important to gather consensus early — involve other stakeholders. If you’re new to the role or there are others new to their roles, over-communicating is important early on — cc’ing people on an e-mail can be a pain but can help inform and make people feel they are part of the process,” he said.

He noted that a predecessor at IBM legal once told him “our clients are entitled to top-quality legal advice but not everyone is entitled to the answer they want.”

It’s also important, said Brait, to know what an organization’s hot buttons are — what do they get upset about? Also, develop a network of people and make sure the key people know what you’re doing — this can be helpful when trying to gain consensus and establish value for the legal department.

“We do a lot of large project work — wind farms, urban transit systems, electrical grid systems and when we looked at it as a legal department we decided change management should be a strategic item this year. On the theme of behaving like owners, we brought finance people in and looked at projects for the last three years and looked at analytics to say ‘We can bring in this much more profit based on past experience,’” he said.

Francoise Guenette, senior vice president and general counsel with Intact Financial Corporation, said she always read a lot about a company and its competitors before joining its ranks. She says it is critical for in-house leaders new to a company to learn how they can align with their client’s strategy.

“Know your environment and your company’s three-year plan — where the business wants to go,” she said.

That also often includes being the moral conscience of the organization.

She added that lawyers are increasingly in charge of compliance and she always felt it was her duty to “push the values of the company and to help make the decision that is based on what is right and what is wrong.”

Snell added that business leaders are often happy to “drag lawyers into areas of business to help.”

“Because legal has a cross-functional role, we can often be brought in to fill the gaps. It is a natural affinity for the dealmaker role,” he said. “We’re also not usually incentive-based employees, so we have a level of independence and can deliver the best answer for the company. We are less concerned about importance of that sale today, or for this quarter and are more focused in the long term.”

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