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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

March 22, 2016

My company execs don’t respect Legal. Some believe we are a ”bottleneck to getting deals done” and their critical comments have adversely impacted my team. How do I fix this?

Julie Q. Brush

There is no question that the importance of and appreciation for a company’s in house legal department has greatly increased over the past 20+ years. No longer considered a “cost center” or “path to no”, today’s corporate lawyers are more often viewed as key executives: vital protectors of the organization and strategic business partners.

But this isn’t the case in every organization. Some executives resent the legal function; or view it as a nuisance or low value-add. To some, it is a necessary evil that they resist every step of the way. So if you are a lawyer who is part of such an organization, you will encounter challenges in your quest to effectively perform your job and earn the respect you deserve for doing it.

You are leading a legal department in one such company – and the attitude towards your group is destructive and creating morale issues for your team. While the current executive viewpoint may be unfair or unjust, the reality is that your business partners are feeling negatively about Legal…and that needs to change if you are to succeed in your role and preserve job satisfaction for you and your team. But simply arguing your case to refute their opinions will fall on deaf ears and have minimal impact. You must take proactive measures to mitigate the situation and move it in a positive direction, which will require a problem solving mentality, a direct approach and courage. The odds are low that you will completely reverse the current mindset – at least in the short term. But real progress is achievable. Here’s where to start:

Cool off and Focus.

It can be maddening, frustrating and infuriating when one feels unvalued. You also have the added responsibility for looking out for your team and facilitating an environment where they can succeed. The current state of affairs is undermining this and diminishing the group’s contribution. This may add to your negative feelings. But in order to move forward productively, I recommend that you take a little time to get centered. Regroup. And focus on how you are going to make the situation better. Being angry in your quest will cloud your judgment and hurt your cause. So, cool off and kick into leadership gear.

Raise the Issue. Gather the Data.

The current perception among executives is that Legal is a “bottleneck to getting deals done”. What exactly does this mean? Who feels this way? How are they experiencing this? Is it with specific lawyers? What are the examples? Is there evidence to demonstrate that Legal has compromised deals? How long does it take to move deal through Legal from start to finish? What are the current expectations? Are executives aware of how Legal performs its role? Are there any other problems in addition to this one? And what is my team experiencing? Are certain executives bypassing the process? Acting disrespectfully? Putting the company at risk?

Your first step in this process is to get to the bottom of what is going on…and gather as much data as you can so you clearly understand the nature of the problem and the frustrations. Bringing the topic to the forefront is also a must. So book time with the executives in question as well as your team to raise…and discuss the issue at hand. As you enter your exec meetings, be prepared and stay focused. Know your objectives; have prepared questions as well as your opening remarks. Be succinct and use a collaborative/problem solving tone. Here is an example:

  • Robert, thanks for taking the time to meet with me today – I really appreciate it. I wanted to talk because I have received feedback that some executives are feeling frustrated with the legal department. And more specifically, that Legal is a bottleneck. It is important to me that our team partners effectively with company leaders by not only protecting the company, but by facilitating business. So this perception concerns me. It’s also affecting the morale of my team, which ultimately hurts the company. So I’d like to gather as much information about your personal experience as you’re willing to share as well as your current expectations so I can create a solution.

When speaking with your team members, I recommend individual meetings if you can swing it, but if not, addressing as a group can work if you manage a targeted discussion. In your meetings, gather information about their approach when working through agreements for their business partners as well as their overall experience. Example:

  • Kristen, There has been talk that some executives are frustrated with the speed in which our team is working; making it difficult to push deals through fast enough. This frustration is affecting the team and I want to not only solve the problem, but also ensure that you remain happy in your role. My first step is to gather information from our business partners and our team about how we work together. So it would be helpful to understand your approach, what your experience has been and specific instances that might be relevant.

Create a Solution.

With more data, you’ll have a clearer view of the problem from both sides of the fence and will be able to create a solution to address and educate each constituency accordingly. Perhaps a process overhaul is in order. Perhaps you need a playbook – or a tool to educate executives on the sausage making of protecting the company. Perhaps you need to terminate a team member. Or perhaps, you need all of it. Whatever “it” is, the goal is to create a better understanding for all involved and a path forward that serves the best interest of the company and addresses as best as possible everyone’s needs (including your own!).

Enlist Support and Implement.

Communicate your plan to the execs and your team, educate, ask for feedback and get buy in. Strive for a commitment to your solution from both sides…and implement. As the leader of the department, it’s up to you to take the lead. It won’t be easy and you’ll have to actively manage the situation until perception has shifted and a more positive working process emerges.

So what happens if you go through all this rigmarole only to end up where you started? If your executives continue to devalue your team and its contributions despite your most concerted efforts, it will be time to assess a career change. Unless there are changes at the top, the behavior towards Legal will continue and tensions will escalate. Your lawyers will leave and you’ll either hit your boiling point or more drastic executive measures will be taken – which will likely result in your removal. Not a good ending in any circumstance.

You are facing some material challenges in your role as the leader of the department. And while your inclination may be to try to convince the execs that they are ignorant and your team’s practices are entirely justified, it’s an ineffective approach. It creates an Us vs. Them dynamic and won’t produce the results you desire. Instead, take a step back and strive for a truer partnership to achieve your goal. After all, you all want what’s best for the company. So working together to achieve that goal is the only way. And in doing so, you earn yourself the greatest opportunity to restore harmony and the respect your team so rightly deserves.

Like this

Saurabh Nathany, Paralegal, The R. Shawn McBride Law Firm, PLLC

Sometimes the company expands, the volume of legal work goes through the roof, but the management lends a deaf ear to the legal team's need to expand commensurate to the work load. The quality of legal output suffers, and so does the overall team efficiency. Unfortunately, when the culture from "top down" is non-appreciation for the legal, perceiving legal to be more of a cost center and a hindrance to project signing, gradually other business folks within the whole organization start resonating that perception. What the legal can do in such circumstances at the most, is make its recommendations and requests on record in annual reviews keeping the issues transparent with the legal team members, and as a last resort look at a career change.

Mariama Yilla, Legal counsel, Unemployed

This is so accurate. It's a live experience. I thought I had a problem. Your article made me see clear. Thanks. Will try to implement in my next job.

Jaimee King, General Counsel and VP Operations, AMTSO

Thank you for this - yet another fantastic article. I like how you encourage us, as counsel, to take responsibility to move toward solution, rather than just lament the situation or continue to push against the wall of discontent.

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