The legal team and the C-suite: Collaboration at the very top

Sterling Miller

General counsel have many clients, but none more important than the members of the executive team, often referred to as the “C-suite.” Unfortunately, for many general counsel, the C-suite sees them only as the “lawyer” — the person there to help deal with legal issues and nothing more. The root cause of this problem is fairly simple: many general counsel simply accept this role by choice, passivity, or because they do not know how to change the dynamic.

Below are five things all general counsel can do to move beyond being merely the lawyer in the room and become an effective and valued member of the C-suite.

No. 1: Stop writing and talking like a lawyer

When you move in house, you must forget almost everything they taught you about legal writing in law school and at the law firm. It just doesn’t work in the business world, and writing and talking “like a lawyer” will make you the least popular person at the C-suite table. You need to keep thinking like a lawyer, but when translating those high-quality legal thoughts to paper or words, you need to understand how to communicate correctly.

First, your audience doesn’t care about legal issues. So, their tolerance level and attention span for whatever you are writing or talking about are low. Keep it concise, and put the answer up front. Second, lose the legal jargon, the Latin words, the footnotes, the Blue Book citations, and your love of multiple alternative theories. Why? See the first point. Third, keep things simple. You may wallow in the legal mire all day, but the C-suite doesn’t. Go the extra mile to ensure they can understand what you are communicating. Fourth, give them options and your recommendation on what to do. They may disagree with your advice and that’s okay. But, failing to provide an answer or not telling the business what you think they should do will not sit well — and it shouldn’t.

Your job is to give the best solution you can and to give your advice and counsel to the executive team in a way they can understand that is practical and useful to the business.

No. 2: Master the business

Deep learning and understanding about the business you work for are critical in commanding the attention of the C-suite. It is difficult to be part of the business team if you haven’t bothered to learn the details of the business. Understand how your company makes money; its products and services; its important customers, vendors, and competitors; and, above all, its business plans and strategy. Start by:

  • Reading company strategy documents and business plans.
  • Read all press releases, public filings, and analyst reports, if any. Read the public filings of your company’s main competitors for more depth and insight.
  • Read board slides.
  • Ask for demos of company products and services.
  • Meet with your C-suite colleagues and ask them for their take on the marketplace, competitors, company strategy, etc.
  • Identify industry publications, newsletters, blogs, etc., and add these to your daily reading.
  • Spend some time with the CFO to review the most recent financial statements — P&L, cash flow, and the balance sheet — and share their thoughts about how the company is situated financially.  And make sure you have a basic understanding of financial statements.
  • Be well read generally; read for fun and knowledge. Read books and general news magazines. You can use this knowledge in several ways, including spotting non-legal opportunities to raise when the time is right and building and enhancing your personal relationships with your business colleagues — simply by being a well-informed conversationalist.

If the C-suite sees that you know the company’s business, they will be more likely to include you in discussions about more than just legal issues.

No. 3: Build relationships with the C-suite

People follow and seek out people they like. Being approachable and likable are key leadership attributes; spend time considering how you come across to your peers in the C-suite. Are you someone they look forward to speaking with and spending time with? To be that person, focus on the following:

  • Make them feel welcome when they reach out to you. If you’re too busy to speak, reply, or meet with them right away, let them know — nicely — that you’re short of time at the moment, but you’ll get back to them ASAP.
  • Have a sense of humor. Allow yourself to laugh at things, especially when poking fun at yourself. Nothing humanizes someone faster than a little self-deprecating humor.
  • Be a collaborative partner. Be helpful, do your share, be open minded, etc. If people know working with you will be a good experience — even when the problem is challenging — they will seek you out.
  • Be trustworthy — keep your word and do what you will say you will do. Keep confidences and be someone your peers want to talk to and confide in. Everyone wants to work with someone they can trust.

No. 4: Give even-handed information

The C-suite needs to know that you will not exaggerate good facts, play down bad facts, or vice versa. Your place in the C-suite constellation is “truth-giver”; no executive team can make good decisions about anything, let alone legal issues, unless they know the plain truth. Do not try to slant the facts to drive the executive team to the action you want them to take.

If there is an option that you believe is superior to other options, that is fine. You can — and should — tell them which option is the best course. But don’t forget to list the other alternatives and, if they have merit, explain their merit and why you still think your preferred option is best. If you want to be part of the team, give them the even-handed and complete information that the C-Suite needs to make the hard decisions. They will recognize that you are doing so and appreciate it.

No 5: Show good judgment

Your C-suite colleagues will want you to weigh in on many different topics if you consistently exercise good judgment. You exercise good judgment by having a philosophy around how you make decisions — the process you follow that helps you make good decisions and demonstrate sound judgment. Here is a short mental checklist that you can communicate with your colleagues to run through when faced with the need to make substantive decisions:

  • Don’t make decisions when you’re mad or upset.
  • There’s always another side to the story.
  • Don’t make assumptions; learn the facts.
  • What information am I missing and where do I get it?
  • Who wins and who gets hurt?
  • Who else needs to be involved in making this decision?
  • What is the company’s risk tolerance and how will this fit in?
  • Do I need to make this decision immediately, or do I have time to think about it?
  • What are the three most likely things to happen after I decide?
  • What’s the downside of my decision?
  • Am I being consistent?
  • What is the right thing to do — and why can’t we do that?

More often than not, having a method to consider problems and reach decisions will lead to good, decisive decisions — the offspring of good judgment.

Being a general counsel attorney is a tough job, but it can also be a rewarding one. It is most rewarding when your colleagues in the C-suite see you as a peer and not just an order-taking lawyer. You must focus on what drives good business behaviors versus good lawyering to get there. The latter is important, but it’s table stakes. To get to where you want to be, start thinking and acting like a business person with a legal background and not a lawyer who works for a business. Fortunately, general counsel with access to Practical Law have a wealth of legal resources designed to do just that.

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