Business skills: What 21st century small business attorneys need to know

In the modern business world, general counsel (GC) need to augment their legal acumen with business, financial, interpersonal, and other skills. Often the only legal officer for the organization, the small business attorney must know the business inside and out, including understanding how the business defines risk and developing an intimate understanding of business operations.

By developing multidisciplinary expertise, GC can step into a strategic role as trusted advisors — a role that leads to gains for the business and greater job satisfaction for GC.  

A great deal of research has focused on identifying the 21st-century skills that lawyers must have to succeed. The Delta Lawyer Competency Model builds on that research to offer a model of lawyer competency that reflects the diverse skills, mindsets, and knowledge lawyers need to satisfy their clients.

Conceived at a conference, the Delta Model has been evolving through research, data collection, and analysis. The creators of the model, including Alyson Carrel (Northwestern Pritzker School of Law) and Natalie Runyon (Thomson Reuters), have completed four versions and continue to evolve the model.

The latest version — which has been refined based on surveys and interviews with dozens of legal professionals — identifies three broad categories of expertise critical to legal success in today’s workplace: the law, business and operations, and personal effectiveness.

A dynamic version of the Delta Model is being developed now that will be able to shift to reflect the differing degrees of depth necessary within each competency area as individuals move through their careers and change positions. While a lawyer dedicated to researching and writing legal briefs primarily requires expertise in the law and a legal solutions architect requires extensive skills in business and operations, a broad competency in all three categories is likely to continue to be essential for GC.

The three sides of the Delta Model

Knowledge of the law forms the foundation of the Delta Model and was cited by 95% of those interviewed as essential to client satisfaction; 80% of those surveyed rated personal effectiveness — the left side of the model — as important for client satisfaction. Personal effectiveness includes “soft skills” such as communication and character.

Business and operations forms the right side of the Delta Model and was cited by two-thirds of respondents as important to client satisfaction. Within this category, the combination of project management and workflow was the top-rated competency, followed in order by business fundamentals and technology.    

Understanding project management and workflow is critical because GC have their hands in so many areas of the business. In addition, it’s vital that GC also understand business fundamentals, such as knowing how the business derives its revenue, what its market share is and how to read a P&L sheet. In doing so, they will help demonstrate their value and set themselves up to be that trusted advisor to the business.

Building business acumen

If there ever was a time in which general counsel operated in a siloed area outside the core business structure, it is over. As discussed in a recent article, “Upskilling the law department,

GC and the departments they oversee are more integrated than ever in the overall business structure, which means they’re under more pressure to deliver tangible business value.

To address that pressure, Chris Young, GC at Ironclad, notes that it’s important to use data to measure and highlight the impact of the legal department. As an example of how data and technology can be used to reveal the positive contributions of the legal team, Ironclad publishes a quarterly internal contract data report that analyzes its own operational data from the platform, including Ironclad's deal speed and redline turn time. The data shows how the legal team's usage of Ironclad increases efficiency and provides the entire company with actionable insights.

“ Data can also help you compel headcount at the right time and generally get the resources you need when you’re up for fiscal year planning,” Young said. “Until you bring in data, if you are in the business of risk management, it is challenging to justify the resources you need to run an efficient and effective legal department.”

In addition to providing data, GC can demonstrate the value of the legal department in other ways, such as preparing reports to highlight key achievements. Other methods for improving the business perception of the legal department, like listening and having a service-first attitude, require the personal effectiveness skills identified by the Delta Model.  

Some GC go a step further and develop business plans that detail the legal department’s vision, goals, and strategy, as well as a specific plan to demonstrate value to the board of directors and other stakeholders. The key to all these methods is first to recognize that the legal department is an integral part of the business and then to develop the skills and strategy necessary to succeed in that role.

Using the Delta Model to move beyond “thinking like a lawyer”

As shown in the Delta Lawyer Competency Model, lawyers today need to be well versed not only in the law but also in the business and how it works.

For GC at growing businesses — where workloads keep increasing and budgets typically do not — becoming well rounded in business fundamentals, technology skills, relationship building, and other competencies is essential. These skills can make it easier for GC to move into the role of trusted business advisor while also ensuring that every minute of every workday is used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Learn more about the skills GC need to succeed in today’s growing businesses.

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