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Small business general counsel: Why building relationships is key to your success

Relationship-building skills for 21st century small-business attorneys

The Delta Lawyer Competency Model identifies the three categories of expertise that are most critical to success for today’s small business attorneys. Not surprisingly, knowledge of the law is one essential category. A second, increasingly vital area of competency is business acumen. 

The third area in which general counsel (GC) lawyers need to develop competency is in their personal effectiveness skills, which include relationship management, an entrepreneurial mindset, an emotional mindset, communication, and character. Because these soft skills are difficult to quantify, this category is often the least appreciated and most overlooked of the three, yet deeply important for success. Here are three keys to building personal effectiveness skills.

Build emotional intelligence

One of the most important personal effectiveness skills GC can develop is emotional intelligence, a broad term that includes being aware of your own emotions, discerning how your actions affect others, and being open to differing and diverse perspectives.

The first step is to understand the significant personal and career benefits of emotional intelligence, including improved mental health and better relationships with colleagues. The next step is to develop emotional intelligence skills, either individually or collectively as part of a broader business commitment.

At Drinker Biddle & Reath, a firm with 600 lawyers, a well-being specialist provides ongoing training in self-awareness, self-management, and leading with emotional intelligence. The training process and benefits are detailed in a case study, which notes that one partner at the firm used the training to better understand a former client’s goals and needs. The partner was then able to respond in a thoughtful, empathetic way that brought the client’s business back after a decade of separation.

Cultivate external relationships

The ability for small business attorneys to develop strong relationships with partners inside the business, outside counsel, and others external to the business is another critical soft skill. The benefits of honing this skill include being able to retain a larger number of satisfied clients, operate with greater efficiency, and avoid time-consuming disagreements.

Troy Roberts, chief in-house counsel at Charles Kirkland Companies, often calls co-counsel, executives at other companies, and even opposing counsel to talk through concerns and develop relationships that can save time and prevent unnecessary escalations.

Before one contentious hearing, Roberts considered sending a sternly worded letter, but instead opted to call the opposing counsel and have a cordial conversation. The result? The case was quickly settled and the relationship endures, which could lead to further collaboration and time savings in the future. “I’ve had multiple lawyers thank me because I’ll pick up the phone and start a professional relationship with them,” he says. “They appreciate it and you get a lot more done that way.”

Get to know colleagues

Forging relationships with partners in the business is as important as doing so with those outside the business. Prior to the pandemic, Chris Young, GC at Ironclad, and the other in-house counsel would often get together at meetings held around the country hosted by Ironclad. It’s not simply that these social gatherings are fun; they have a practical purpose as well. “We share best practices, get advice and guidance, and commiserate,” Young says, noting how essential those informal opportunities to communicate are in improving employee retention and job satisfaction. They plan to resume meeting when it’s safe to gather.

According to Michelle Fang, chief legal officer at Turo, those internal relationships are essential for the startup business. Fang now oversees the company’s legal and government affairs on a global basis, but she was the first and only lawyer at the company for three years. As GC, Fang had to cover every aspect of the business and get to know it from the inside out. “As a startup, we are one team. We all work together closely to solve our problems. We in the law department partner with the business and the business has been very supportive in return.”

Organized meetings and one-on-one interactions with colleagues are both ways to learn more about the business and to build an internal network that provides mutual support. When you express a genuine interest in other parts of the business, you open the door to learning about how those departments work and to developing allies throughout the company.

When you have an established relationship with someone, they are likely to share information with you voluntarily rather than waiting for you to search it out. Information gained from colleagues in this way is mutually beneficial both personally and professionally.

Focus on soft skills

When people think about how to become a better small business attorney, developing emotional intelligence and managing relationships are probably not the first ideas that come to mind. And yet, these and other personal effectiveness skills are a vital part of success. For attorneys at growing businesses who are juggling demanding workloads and managing tight budgets, these skills are especially critical — they create opportunities to save time, operate more efficiently, and work more proactively as strategic advisors to the business.

Learn more about the skills a GC needs to succeed in today's growing businesses.

Want expert guidance?

Check out the Startups and Small Businesses Collection on Practical Law