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How small business lawyers can become that trusted advisor

Best Practices for In-House Attorneys
Sterling Miller

The role of the in-house lawyer has evolved dramatically over the past several decades. What was once the sleepy backwater of the practice of law is now a sought-after legal position. Most openings for small business lawyers have dozens of applicants. Why? Primarily because the applicants want to develop a deeper and more complex relationship with a single client and use that deep relationship to morph into the role of trusted advisor — the next leap in the evolution of practicing law in house.

It takes work to pull it off, however. No one magically shows up in house and is suddenly a trusted and valued advisor. The business side of the house will expect — in fact, demand — that you show them why they should trust you and your advice, especially on non-legal matters. It really comes down to a number of proven and tried steps. If you master these, then you will be well on your way to being more than just a lawyer. You will be someone they look to for input on just about any issue; a much more interesting role.

Here are the basics:

Learn the business

You cannot be a trusted advisor if you do not understand the business.  How do you give advice about or draft a contract if you do not understand the underlying business model? How do you think strategically when you do not know the company’s products, services, customers, competitors, or how it makes money?

You need to take time to:

a)      Read about your company’s business (website, press releases, public filings, industry publications, etc.)

b)      Get demonstrations of the company’s products and services

c)      Understand basic finance so you can read the company’s P&L, balance sheet, and cash-flow statement

d)      Meet with your clients individually and ask them to walk you through how they see the business

e)      Ask to participate in staff meetings, quarterly conferences, or other gatherings of your business colleagues 

In other words, stop hiding at your desk and get your hands dirty. Once you do, your advice will naturally tailor to the nuances of how the company operates, and clients will grow to trust and appreciate the advice you are giving because they see you as a peer and not a hired gun.

Be practical

When you give legal advice, always think about the practical impact of what you are proposing. Will this advice work in the real business world? Are you suggesting burdensome compliance with regulations that have little bite? Are you fighting over word choice? Are you letting perfect stand in the way of good enough? If so, stop!

For example, legally, it would be great if you could get away with not giving any type of IP indemnity in your contracts. But, if your business is selling software, sales will plummet without such protections. Instead, focus on the many different ways you can give an IP indemnity yet limit exposure to the company, such as liability caps, conditions on how the buyer uses your products, and controlling the defense of any claims. Clients will trust — and seek — your advice when it makes sense to them and feels balanced, practical, and useful in the real world.

Responsiveness matters

Responsiveness does not necessarily mean turning projects faster, although the ability to find and present answers quickly does matter. Rather, it is more basic, as in, “Keep me updated about my project,” and responding to phone calls and emails within 24 hours or less — even if it is just to tell clients you got their message.

Don’t make your client chase you for updates. Update them at least weekly, even if just to tell them there is nothing new going on. When gone or unavailable, always set an “out of the office” message in email and voice mail so the business is not searching for you. Put an emergency phone number in the message just in case. Finally, always be courteous, professional, and humble. Clients will value and seek out the advice of someone who is available, makes them feel welcome, and does not talk down to them.

Find out what matters to them

Lawyers tend to focus on things that we think are important, but does the business care about these things? Spend more time finding out their priorities. Are they trying to minimize the risk of a data breach?  Do they need to find a way to get dozens of smaller contracts signed efficiently? Whatever it might be, you cannot help them unless you learn what matters to them. So, ask them!

Look at the company’s yearly goals: is the work you are doing advancing those goals? If not, it is time to rethink what you are doing. Clients trust lawyers who focus on issues important to them and to the business overall.

Stop talking and writing like a lawyer

Writing and presenting in house is different than writing at a law firm or presenting to a court. It requires that you find and get right to the answer while keeping everything short and succinct. If you want the business to consider you one of the team, then drop the stodgy lawyer routine. There is no need for footnotes, case citations, or exhausting your thesaurus when writing or speaking.

Consider anything longer than a few pages as likely fodder for the trash bin. Stop using lawyer jargon: speak and write in a plain, simple conversational tone (like Hemingway). Get to the point and give your best advice as to what to do next. They may not agree with you, but they want to hear what you think — advise them!

Most importantly, remember that legal does not run the business. Advice should rarely be “because legal says so.” Trusted advisors create a partnership with the business, not a dictatorship.

Look and act the part

If you want to be taken seriously, do not come to work dressed like a hobo or for a night of dancing at the club. Don’t be the class clown; develop gravitas and integrity. Be the calmest person in the room when a crisis hits — run towards the fire. Be enthusiastic and curious. Do what you say you will do and meet deadlines. And, most importantly, be authentic. If you want people to seek out and trust your advice, make it easy for them to see you as someone they can and should trust.

If you want the business to value you and your advice, start thinking and acting like a business owner instead of a hired legal gun. When you start providing advice that is practical and doable, that best serves the business and its goals, and you are having conversations versus dictating positions, the business will respond favorably to you. Over time, they will treat you like a highly valued, trusted advisor and not just another small business lawyer to try to get around or avoid.

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