Building Trust: How Effective General Counsel Engage Clients [Updated: 3/23/2021]
There is no question today's most effective General Counsel/Chief Legal Officer is thinking strategically about how she and her team meet the growing demands of their fast-moving businesses. Whatever the industry, Boards, and CEOs are increasingly sophisticated consumers of legal advice. They demand business-savvy legal solutions to an increasing array of matters - from the most complex, sophisticated transactions to the most mundane, routine issues.
Engaged in-house counsel have evolved to meet the demand. They have learned how to be trusted business partners to their clients, working shoulder to shoulder to drive business outcomes that strengthen organizations, keeping them healthy, and adding real value to stakeholders in and out of the organization. But for many seasoned in-house attorneys, change has been challenging, and it has come too slowly.
CEOs Hire Business Partners
In the go-go days of your time in private practice, you learned to pivot from matter to matter, client to client, and partner to partner. Maybe you developed a niche specialization because of a big client's recurring demands or a specialized partner. Or perhaps you became de facto outside General Counsel for a small client or two. Whatever your practice mix, the diversity of matters you handled in private practice helped you become an expert advisor, deftly navigating pitfalls and roadblocks, anticipating opportunity, and peering around corners your clients could not see up ahead.
When an organization decides to bring legal expertise in-house, it can leverage those diverse experiences. Whether exploring new markets, contemplating a significant transaction, or building a risk/compliance program, executives want to know what other similarly situated organizations have done and how YOU helped get them across the finish line.
All the world experience will not help you empower your in-house clients if you do not know them well. Beyond the technical and the obvious (to you), solid, actionable advice requires an understanding of both the business and the personalities that drive it. It requires clear insight into Board and executive risk tolerance. It demands open, candid, and constant communication. And it requires real relationship building. Your client needs to know and trust you if they are to embrace your advice.
Building Trusting Relationships
In-house legal practice requires so much more from the General Counsel than technical expertise to be truly successful in his role as an executive advisor. Sadly, too few attorneys learn to separate the technical from the practical, the legal from the commercial. Many fear they cannot be a business person while safeguarding the companies they serve. Risk management becomes a cover for real, strategic engagement. And that effort to take cover is transparent to everyone around the reluctant business counselor, functioning as a barrier to those who are hungry for advice from a strategic partner.
To build genuine relationships of trust, General Counsel and the teams they lead must engage their clients. It takes a little work on the front end, but the effort will pay dividends over time in the form of professional satisfaction, client recognition, and team effectiveness. And while no business outcome is ever inevitable, great General Counsel and their teams can make a mammoth difference in how the businesses they support function.
How do you get there?
Engage: First, and perhaps most obvious, meet the client on their turf. Spend time with them to get to know them. Listen to the way they describe the business and their role in it. What are they excited about? What worries them? What are their pressure points?
The better you understand what underlies the business's public message, the better able you and your team will be to offer creative, pain easing solutions to the matters that interfere with corporate objectives. And the longer you invest in those relationships, the faster you'll get to a resolution on each successive matter.
Communicate: Develop a strategy to facilitate communication between the legal team and the business. That communication strategy might include outreach on several fronts, but at a minimum, it should consist of:
- Weekly status reports to business units on their outstanding matters;
- In-person update meetings on active matters/deals that require scrutiny;
- Attendance at business unit meetings. Attorneys should attend business strategy meetings and participate when appropriate.
Empower: Educating your clients gives them power and the confidence to execute without needing (or fearing) the legal team's hand-holding. Train them to handle routine matters and give them the playbooks they need to move quickly through the mountain of work on their desks. Doing so makes their work lives better, and it frees up attorney time they could spend on more strategic, value-add work.
Corporate counsel will develop more profound trust levels with their clients when those clients understand the value their legal teams bring to each matter they handle. With clear insight into the legal department's measurable effectiveness, the business and the legal team are more likely to come together to troubleshoot bottlenecks, devise creative solutions to unsustainable legal spending, and anticipate workflow demands to meet the needs of the business intelligently and efficiently.
The General Counsel who engages their clients by getting to know them and their place in the business will open doors that make partnership possible. They will move through matters more quickly and with better outcomes. When a company's lawyers can articulate legal department successes and lessons learned, those doors open wider to creative solutions and genuine strategic partnerships. And the legal departments that empower their business colleagues to stand on their own through training can rest assured their clients will come to them proactively.
This is an exciting, if challenging, time to be a General Counsel. But the rewards require a direct investment in relationship building. Be bold and seize the opportunity to stand out among your peers by throwing yourself into the business relationships that will drive your professional growth and satisfaction. You deserve it, and so do your clients!