A senior leadership position in an organization can be a surprisingly lonely place, especially for in-house counsel. Not only do you face the challenge of educating your “client” as to the often complex and changing legal constructs in which your company operates, but you also enjoy the role of balancing sound legal advice with the business needs and strategies of the company, of having to consider worst case scenarios when your client would rather focus on the upside, of managing a department of highly trained professionals who struggle with the day-to-day tedium that can be the reality of an in-house practice, and who often aspire to be upwardly mobile in a place that may not have much opportunity to offer its professionals. Law departments can be perceived as revenue sucking cost-centers that are necessary evils, throwing up road-blocks at every turn.
Furthermore, senior leaders in the law department are often privy to “situations” within the company that may be delicate or challenging to manage. They often must skirt around established protocols to obtain outside experts to advise and help address these situations. It can result in awkward exchanges with fellow executives who may doubt your loyalty or may have (falsely) believed that you represented their personal interests rather than those of the company. It can all be very isolating. Sounds fun and rewarding, right? It can be. Leader lawyers who are able to put on the hat of a good manager can face these challenges head on, while staying connected to those around them.
Here are five strategies to help make it a little less lonely at the (almost) top:
1. Establish as strong a department as possible. As soon as you have gotten the lay of the land in your organization, determine where your department fits into the company’s construct. Outline, perhaps with the help of your CEO, CFO and COO, the role that you and the department are expected to play. Document your understanding, in case this needs to be revisited later. Then evaluate your department — is it properly organized to meet the expectations you have outlined? Is it properly staffed? Sometimes tough decisions will need to be made if you don’t have the right people. You may want to reach out to the Executive Board or the Association for Corporate Counsel to get input in terms of the appropriate size and staffing levels for your company’s size and industry. Communicate back to your executive team what your findings are if there is a budget or resource disparity, and discuss realistic goals for changes, if they are to be made. If the company is not supportive of additional resources, clearly identify how that will impact the support that your organization can provide and the potential risks where there is a shortfall. Then establish within your team how it will be organized and function, with clear job descriptions, responsibilities and goals. Monitor their progress, including by speaking with their business contacts in the company. You will demonstrate your abilities as a business leader, not just a managing attorney, by going through these exercises, thus earning the respect of your colleagues.
2. Encourage your lawyers to become members of the business teams that you support. Attend their team meetings. Listen to their challenges. Offer insights. Often attorneys see across many units of an organization and can help bridge gaps. Sometimes, an attorney’s experiences in an organization pre-date the business team, and can help explain why an idea did or didn’t work when it was tried before. Don’t immediately say no to a project that seems to you to be ill advised or doomed from the start. Listen, ask questions, make suggestions. If feasible, go back and research alternatives. Even if the answer eventually is no, you have shown that you are a team player and are trying to support their project or plan. Sometimes a well-placed call to a fellow leader explaining the challenges presented will allow a decision to be made without it seeming that you are “just out to kill their deal.”
3. Be as fair and open as you can be when you communicate to your department. While you may get some initial breathing room by hiding something like decreased or disappearing bonuses from your team, when reality hits, you will have lost credibility with them, even if you had no control over the funding of bonuses. People appreciate candor when you are able to give it to them. Don’t make promises you cannot keep. Don’t hang promotional carrots overhead if promotions are not a possibility. Neither do you have to give the doomsday news if it isn’t yet confirmed or final. Treat people the way you would like to be treated by your boss. Establish relationships based on trust. If you are communicating as fairly as possible, it will help discourage rumor mills. They are destructive, create fear unnecessarily, and distract from the work at hand. If a personnel issue arises, deal with it as quickly and deftly as possible. The “wait and see” approach almost always leads to a bigger mess.
4. Try to make coming to work fun for those around you. It’s not an easy job, and morale can get pretty low, especially if you are still facing a client that hasn’t accepted the value of your contributions to the future of the company. My last boss had an infectious laugh. Even though I knew he was facing some tough challenges, hearing his laugh come from someone’s office just made the place a little better. Try to find some time and money for group lunches or activities on some sort of schedule. I finally had my assistant schedule my team’s lunches once every two months. It wasn’t so often that I felt like we were wasting corporate funds, but it was often enough for us to break away from the day-to-day and escape. It gave me a chance to catch up on what they were hearing/thinking/feeling so that I could take it into consideration, put untruths to rest, and try to get us all back on the same track. I hope it made them feel appreciated and valued. They were.
5. Find a mentor or adviser with whom you can discuss some of the challenges that you are facing. Sometimes you can find someone in the office who can be a sounding board. Given what lawyers do, especially at the leadership level, this is not always an option. You may need to engage a counselor or coach who will keep confidential what you tell them. Obviously, your attorney-client confidentiality obligations preclude you from sharing anything relating to your legal representation of the Company. However, you can still gain from discussing personnel issues, how to approach a hypothetical situation, and ask what has helped people in similar roles. Your discussions may focus more on how you conduct yourself than on any specific situation you may be facing. And being able to speak with someone who is not involved may give you some clarity.