Some in-house lawyers have a reputation of protecting their clients right out of business. In endless negotiations over all possible hypothetical scenarios, they slow down and draw out the deal-making process until the whole thing falls apart.
But others are actively fighting the stereotypes, changing perceptions, and becoming essential partners in the process of making deals. Here are their secrets:
1. Don’t avoid risk: manage it.
Corporate counsel are blessed with an extra sense: between each set of lines in a proposed contract, they can perceive a new form of terrible danger.
You are highly trained to think in hypotheticals, second-guess every word, and sniff out risk wherever it may lurk. Those are valuable skills. But at the same time, there is no powerful business decision that didn’t carry a hefty share of risk. Risk rides alongside opportunity. In our current economy, the greatest risk of all is that fear will stop the company from seizing new opportunities and moving forward, paralyzing it into obsolescence.
Risk avoidance should never be your main goal when reviewing a potential deal. Work with the executive team to understand what levels of risk are tolerable. Lean on tactics such as mitigation or risk transfer. Search for changes that will help the business confront and weather problems when they arise. You’ll gain a reputation as a lawyer who isn’t afraid of new steps, and actively helps the company move forward.
2. Become a master negotiator
When negotiation skills are taught in law school, they’re usually geared toward the adversarial process of litigation. But the context is usually different for in-house lawyers trying to facilitate favorable deals for their client. Instead of holding diametrically opposed interests, both parties often desire a similar, mutually-beneficial outcome. Instead of seeking one ‘win’, the parties benefit from maintaining relationships of trust that facilitate future transactions.
In this context, it’s more important to ask questions, listen to the needs of the other side, and build rapport. To enhance your skills, look into some of the new books about business negotiation or take advantage of local or online courses designed to teach business negotiation to lawyers.
3. Champion the right technology
When your in-house clients see you as a bottleneck, it can create a sense of resentment and isolate you from other departments and leadership. At its worst, this perception can lead to risky behavior, as others withhold information or try to circumvent legal ‘red tape.’
One way to begin changing perceptions is by implementing in-house legal software that speeds up and simplifies the deal-making process. Human-centered contract management software helps you come to agreement faster. New contracts can be automatically drafted from templates, and changes can be negotiated in a clear, accessible process that builds trust. They can also help sales teams understand when they’re empowered to move forward on their own and when they need to return to the legal team for guidance.
By offering smart solutions, you’ll come to be seen as a forward-thinking and tech-savvy partner in the process of making deals.
4. Never stop building your internal network
Before you even start negotiating with external partners, you need to understand the needs, goals, and values of your own in-house client. In addition to supporting the company’s overarching vision, you should build trust with various department heads and individual leaders. When you help build understanding and smooth out potential conflict internally, others will intuitively understand that you’re someone who can help the company reach agreements externally as well.
Listen, learn, and earn the trust of your in-house clients. These relationships will not only make you more effective in your work, they will also change the way others perceive you, ensuring that you’re no longer stereotyped as a bottleneck, but honored as an in-house deal maker.