by Jason Bess, Senior Counsel, AutoZone, Inc., Submitted Post
There is no shortage of stereotypes about attorneys. “Attorneys are bad at math,” “They can practice law but not run a business,” and “Lawyers aren’t good managers.” In 2016 the ABA published the Altman Weil Flash Survey of Chief Legal Officers. At the time, 37.2% of respondents planned on increasing their In-House Lawyer workforce. These stereotypes coupled with the anticipated labor increase should serve as a reminder that developing an effective team is a necessity that begins with leadership. In my experience, to develop your in-house team, focus on three areas: 1) wearing multiple hats, 2) skill development, and 3) ensuring complex issues are thoroughly understood.
- Wear multiple hats
In-House attorneys should never take their legal hats off, but it is my opinion attorneys are recognized as effective or talented when they are business-minded. They should be thinking broadly about the business as a whole and peripheral consequences that can occur on deals they are advising on.
It is not uncommon for transactional attorneys to advise on both legal and business terms within a contract. New attorneys should learn quickly how to advise business partners in both company jargon and plain English while providing the “why.” For new attorneys fresh out of law school who may not have worked in a corporate environment previously, this may be a hard lesson. Invite them to meetings to simply listen to how you or others provide advice on legal and business concerns. You cannot develop your in-house team without participation and involvement.
Finally, the team of attorneys, junior or senior, should constantly be learning about different aspects of the business. Nearly every department within the company will in some way interact with legal. Without understanding each department’s fundamental purpose and general day to day issues it is nearly impossible to provide reliable advice. By learning different aspects of the business the attorneys become more well-rounded, learn jargon or culture, and ultimately increase their exposure to new legal issues while working to expand and develop your in-house team.
- Skill Development
Not all attorneys are created equal. Some of the most effective attorneys are those who were given a lot of exposure to different issues and parts of an organizations. Developing a new attorney’s skill set is not only good for the company and team but good for that attorney both personally and professionally. This can be achieved through delegation without taking up a manager’s time, and is critical if you want to develop your in-house team.
Partner your new attorneys with those who are more senior. Choose a day-to-day activity that exists and has already been primarily designated to a single attorney. The junior and senior attorney can choose to work in a wide variety of ways but one of the most effective is multiple step process. First is to have the new attorney simply shadow – learn the basic workings of the particular project; second have that attorney try their hand at the task but have it reviewed by the senior attorney; third make sure the new attorney knows what mistakes were made and ensure they know why the correct decision is correct. Finally, after seeing project completed correctly several times with the proper reasoning, hand it off. As a result, there are two attorneys who can now complete this project in the event of an unexpected absence and this has freed your senior attorney to do something more valuable with her time.
Similarly, is developing a general job rotation within your department. The manufacturing industry has been doing this for years for multiple reasons. Some include to prevent muscle injury, increase innovation, and reduced boredom. In some cases, the business can hire fewer people since the majority of their staff will be able to be versatile in the job functions that the company may demand. This may not be apples to apples when compared to a large legal department. However, interdepartmental job rotation is an alternative to ensure each attorney is continuing to develop new skills and an overall understanding of the business.
- Ensuring complex issues are thoroughly understood
This may seem like a given but it should not be taken for granted. Whether just licensed or newly hired, it is entirely possible that bad habits were developed in the past. Alternatively, the company risk issues may not be comparable.
One complex issue often times overlooked, frequently leading to litigation, is Representation/Warranties and Indemnification. You may be thinking this is at least two issues, not one. It’s my opinion that these clauses are so related, and impacted by one another, that they should be viewed as a single issue. Outside of an elective Remedies class, these clauses and how they relate to remedies is something that is generally not taught in depth during law school as one would hope. Another large issue is data. Depending on your industry this could be a day-to-day issue. Nearly every company is impacted by data and privacy laws or regulations. For some it is easy to point to the regulation they swim in – the Financial Services Industry can point to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Those in retail may point to several FTC regulations along with EU regulations.
Ensuring your team understands these issues can be accomplished with open dialogue in lieu of micromanaging. Despite your own time constraints keeping an open door policy so your team can come to you with questions or even just run through hypotheticals should be encouraged. Hearing a team member muse on a topic can highlight where knowledge gaps may be. It’s not uncommon to have periodic team meetings where everyone shares unique items they are working on. In discussing those complex issues it provides everyone with alternative ways to think about or solve the problem, and helps develop your in-house team.
Finally, don’t forget about your early shortfalls. Knowing what you do today, if you could tell yourself anything when starting in-house what would it be? Be sure to share what your hard taught lessons were.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of AutoZone.
Jason Bess (LinkedIn) specializes in commercial transactions while advising executives on their rights, obligations, and business decisions as the relate to highly regulated areas including privacy and technology. Today Jason serves as Senior Corporate Counsel, Customer Satisfaction of AutoZone.