Throw your hat over the wall: a challenge for 2013

Throw your hat over the wall: a challenge for 2013
We have all seen the articles about the increased influence of general counsel both in the boardroom and elsewhere, as well as the expanding role in the C-suite. However, in all the conversations about influence and stature we should not lose sight of the most basic responsibility of the general counsel — to be a good lawyer. Whatever other responsibilities you assume or roles you take on while practising in-house, your core and most fundamental responsibility is the legal health of your client, the organization. Thus, being a good lawyer comes before anything else.

Stated simply, this responsibility can be divided into two “buckets”:

•    Providing legal advice and counselling; and
•    Managing the organization’s legal services.

This division remains true whether you practise as the only lawyer in the organization or as part of a large law department. Size does matter, but only in terms of how you fulfill these obligations not whether they apply to you.

A good lawyer does the following to fill the advice and counsel bucket:

•    Understands the company business and uses the legal organization to enable the business to achieve its goals;
•    Knows the relevant law or, when appropriate, where to get the answers;
•    Has the ability to take complex legal matters and make them simple;
•    Keeps cool in times of stress and exercises reasoned judgment;
•    Has the integrity and the courage to say no or, as the case may be, yes to a proposed course of action;
•    Proactively identifies emerging legal and regulatory issues as well as other issues that may put the company at risk;
•    After identifying these risks uses common sense and judgment to determine the ones of real significance to the organization.

The general counsel who does these things will achieve the “trusted legal adviser” status we hear so much about and all strive to attain.

The legal services bucket requires a different focus on the business side of your practice. I touched upon this last month when discussing the advice Mike Dillon, general counsel of Adobe, offered to my law school class. Specifically, he emphasized the importance of operating the law department in a business-like manner. To that end, he discussed budgeting, using the practices of your company (e.g., outsourcing, competitive bidding), a relentless focus on external spending (on budget preparation he reflected he had never been told he would have more money for the coming year), and talent development (your team makes you successful).

As InHouse editor Jennifer Brown noted in her recent editorial, while some progressive general counsel have moved proactively to address their concerns about billing and outside counsel fees, many have done little more than complain. Indeed, when I hear the repeated complaints about law firm service, billing, and the disconnect between cost and value from the in-house community, I am reminded of the adage “when all is said and done, more is said than done!”

I am told the Irish have an aphorism about what to do when you must get over a wall that is too high to climb: they say toss your hat to the other side. This coming year, I have a challenge for general counsel who feel fundamentally changing how they do business with their outside counsel is a wall too high to climb.

If you want to do something about your dissatisfaction with the current state of the business side of your practice, i.e., the disconnect between the cost of legal services and the value received from outside counsel, then toss your hat over the wall and openly set three specific and measurable goals for what you seek to accomplish with your outside firms in 2013. Consider the following three:

•    Reduce legal costs by 25-33 per cent;
•    Obtain predictable costs; and
•    Improve outcomes in specific areas (e.g., reduce employment litigation claims; contract disputes, etc.).

While such a public and visible action may cause some anxiety, it also will require you to be creative and find a way to get over the wall in order to get your “hat,” in this case successfully managing the legal services bucket for your client. I firmly believe most general counsel have the skills and the discipline to achieve goals like this when they put their minds to it.

Need some help? Check out the resources at the ACC Value Challenge.

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