Are you a new General Counsel? Top ten ways to succeed in your new role

Patrick Johnson
JD, Legal Tracker

The first months in any new role has a tremendous effect on how an employee is perceived and can determine that employee's success. For a new General Counsel that reports to the CEO and the board of directors, this effect is amplified because of the high profile of the position. The following are some key actions a GC can take in the first few months on the job to ensure success.

1. Get to know your stakeholders
It's important to get to know stakeholders both to make that valuable first connection and to understand what they consider success for the legal department. These are the people that will judge your success and as always, first impressions count. In the first couple of weeks, you need to make time with the CEO and board members to understand what they think success looks like and, perhaps more importantly, how your success will be measured. That said, it will be important to quickly assess what you think the legal department should be, including changes that should be made in the short-term versus long-term (staffing, resources, IP), as well as additional responsibilities that should be borne by the legal department that may not currently exist.

2. Get to know your internal clients and their teams
You should also make time for your internal clients – the executives in charge of the business units you'll be supporting. Discuss what they think the legal department can do to make their jobs easier and how best to deliver legal services to them. This is the oh-so-important start of building your network within the company that, at the executive level, becomes as important as the job you do in determining your success. It is also helpful to get to know your internal clients' teams, as you will find they are the "boots on the ground" and will be of aid to you in the navigation and carrying out of your internal clients' needs.

3. Know and assess your team
Next, get to know and assess your team. Meet with the team as a whole to share with them your short- and long-term vision of the legal department. Get to know their workloads, what their pain points are, and get there thoughts on how they can deliver better services. Let your team know that you'll seek their feedback and they will have personal ownership in any initiatives that you have for the department. It may be a good idea to establish a regularly scheduled team meeting each week to touch base on status of various projects and to determine staffing or other needs for such projects.

4. Look for ways to let your talent thrive
Once you've assessed the talents of your department, look for ways for them to use those talents. Maybe your tech-savvy, young corporate attorney would relish implementing a new contract management system or enjoys working on M&A deals. Give him those projects to the extent possible. Maybe someone has shown talent in managing law firms: let her help define or improve your departments billing guidelines. If you're able to get headcount, surround yourself with talented people who will commit to working with you to achieve the department's goals. Remember: Ultimately aligning people with their strengths not only builds efficiencies, it also builds morale.

5. Learn your company's business
Learn about your new company's industry and businesses, as well as your company's business model and philosophy. The GC's job isn't just to manage legal work and advise on legal matters; you are now a business partner. Knowing a company's business often isn't necessary in a law firm because you're working on a discrete legal matter in your field of expertise. In a company (especially at the GC level) knowing the business is essential in both how to approach the legal work and having credibility with your internal clients.

6. Understand your company's culture
The company politics, how to present information both to upper management and to your team, and the business lingo can be different from company to company. Not understanding the culture quickly can make you stand out, and not in a good way. It's also important to know the groups that are most valued and thus have the most power within the company (hint: it's usually the group that drives revenue). Different groups may have different cultures as well – the sales team's culture may be entirely different from the engineering team's culture, for example. If you're coming from a law firm, the whole corporate environment may come as a shock, even if you've worked with corporate clients for decades. If you're coming from another in-house gig, especially if you've been at your former company for a long time, you'll need to be aware that what is considered a "win" at your old company may not be viewed as such in your new environment. For example, some companies may only view visible, individual accomplishments as a success, whereas at a more team-oriented company may look at this as boastful grandstanding and may place more value on team success. Be prepared to quickly learn and adjust to your new company's culture.

7. Assess your law firm relationships
The next relationships to assess are those of your law firms, specifically the law firms with whom you do the greatest amount of highly visible work. If these are inherited law firms, you'll need to determine whether you're comfortable with them and, if not, bring in firms that you do trust. There's no better time than having a new sheriff in town to clear out dead wood and re-establish pricing and performance expectations. Firms that you trust, value client service and deliver highest quality of work with the greatest value should be the winners. All law firms say they value client service. Delivering on the client service promise consistently is something that few firms tend to do. Once you are comfortable with your firms, you'll need to let them know how work will be done moving forward with budgets, billing guidelines and, ideally, project management techniques.

8. Assess your infrastructure
One win that should always be considered is whether there are opportunities to save money and increase efficiency within the department in a measurable way. Why measurable? You've already talked to your stakeholders to determine what they consider wins for your position, now you have to show them you've achieved this success. The only way to do that convincingly is to have data and metrics to back up your claims. The first place to start is looking at the operational and product delivery process of your legal department and whether the right technology is there to support it. How do your attorneys stay on top of their legal matters? How do they communicate with their law firms? There are many matter management software solutions that allow for the creation of matters in one place in which outside counsel can connect and add matter updates, documents and important matter information. You can then get regular reports on these matters so you will never be in the dark or surprised about what is going on in the legal department. The value of this can be measured in a variety of ways: decreasing the cycle time for various types of matters, reducing the overall estimated liability of the company, reduction of claims due to targeted training by the legal department, and more. Furthermore, this software saves in-house attorneys time approving invoices because it's automatically routed to invoice approvers – no carrying invoices from office to office for approvals. The decrease in invoice approval time not only improves the relationship with the department's law firms, it can allow for a negotiated early-pay discount. Money saved from instituting alternative-fee arrangements on matters can also be tracking in this type of system.

Other areas where adopting technology can increase efficiency in the department are an IP management system if there is a great deal of IP work. A contract management system for contract-heavy departments saves untold amount of time looking up contract, clauses and contracts dates for your in-house attorneys. If your company receives a great deal of legal holds, considering legal hold software can also save a demonstrable amount of time as well. It all depends on what your stakeholders are looking for, the nature of your company and its business, and how your legal department is currently set up.

9. Pair with your Human Resources Director
One branch of a GC's role that sometimes gets overlooked until it's too late is internal employee matters, which otherwise fall under the auspices of the HR Department. However, it is never too early to review HR's policies and procedures, ensure managerial compliance with anti-sexual harassment measures, and revise offer and termination letter templates in order to manage the volume of employment matters that will arise during your tenure. Then on an ongoing basis, try to work together with HR to stay apprised of any ongoing and new matters that come up, so as to mitigate exposure and company liability.

10. Understand where your legal dollars are being spent
Another quick win is assessing the department's overall legal spend and how to best manage it. Again, many matter management software packages also have an e-billing component, allowing all legal invoices to be entered into the system. There are several advantages to doing this. The first is you will have a complete view of the spending of the legal department that is accurate and up-to-date – reports you can't get from your AP department. Second, you can actively manage the spend going through the system, like outside counsel rate changes, expense code violations and matter budget violations, which are automatically flagged in the invoices. This is real money saved that can be reported up to a GC's stakeholders.

Bonus- Make a plan
It's time to make a six-month plan with the goal of building credibility and creating departmental momentum. A new GC needs to get some quick wins during this period in order to let stakeholders know she's on the right track. She also needs to continue to get buy-in from her team that is helping implement these changes. A couple of keys to consider here: First, you can't boil the ocean in six months, so focus on a couple key areas to achieve wins and make sure to achieve them. Second, make sure that these wins matter to your main stakeholder(s), because a win doesn't make a sound if your boss doesn't care to hear it. A substantial win is the goal here, but ideally it should tie in to your overall, long-term business priorities and re-enforce new behaviors that you're trying to instill in your department.

Coming into a legal department and creating immediate change is a difficult prospect for any GC. Getting to know all the key players in the company, the company's culture and business, and your law firms are the key to understanding where you should focus your efforts during the first six months. Once a plan is in place it needs to get clearly communicated to both your stakeholders and your team to set expectations and get everyone on board.

Quick wins in a legal department often include achieving legal results, increasing efficiency, saving money, and better allocating resources. Using technology (or using it better) is an important tactic in achieving these goals. After six months, if your network is in place and you've achieved your planned goals, your initial credibility will be established and the groundwork will be laid for pursuing other long-term goals for the legal department and the company.

Reprinted with permission from the Association of Corporate Counsel 2014 All Rights Reserved

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