Our experience has led us to three key insights which form the foundation of our thesis:
- Lawyers want to add as much value as possible but there is a natural conflict of interest between that desire and their obligation to protect their business.
- The business can benefit immensely from its lawyers but doesn’t always expect to or know how to get the best out of them.
- Lawyers know law, but they don’t always know how to build an operationally effective legal function.
…and two main problems.
Conflict of interest
Lawyers get a bad rep for being ‘risk-averse’ but in our experience, a lawyer who goes into a fast-growth tech company already displays a higher risk appetite than many of their peers. Having said that, any lawyer’s primary function is to protect. The business, on the other hand, prioritises growth.
The CEO in a fast-growth environment must take risks – after all, with no risk comes no reward. The lawyer intellectually understands this but sees the underlying tension – they want to add value and help the business grow but will think primarily about protecting the business, both from apparent threats and from threats the business cannot know about in the moment (those famous ‘unknown unknowns’).
What results is often a continuous tug of war, which can easily result in lawyers being locked out of important developments, denied the opportunity to add value because of their ‘otherness’.
The idea of ‘otherness’
Lawyers are not like other businesspeople. Chaos – creative or otherwise – is anathema to them. The kind of flexibility that other functions are used to – “muddling along” – cannot happen in Legal without creating unconscionable risks.
Lawyers are precise, they are driven to define, to correct, to protect and to always think the unthinkable. Often, they’ll use legalese, a highly specific mode of communication between lawyers but fussing, baffling and sometimes downright obstructive when dealing with non-lawyers.
Hence lawyers are seen as ‘other’ – with some justification – and the result is that the legal function is all too often siloed, restricting its capability and potential.
So, with those insights and issues in mind, here are some of the key themes we are going to cover as the series progresses:
- Overwhelm. Lawyers in a new legal function can quickly become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of enquiries, the apparent need to institute new legal processes and documentation throughout the business and the inevitable resource constraint. Don’t let Legal become the business bottleneck. We’ll look at how to avoid this situation, and the fixes if you’re already in it.
- Morale. If you’re firefighting constantly, morale will suffer. That complicates recruitment and retention, saps your energy and degrades your performance – it’s a downward spiral. We’ll look at how to bring order to chaos and calm those nerves.
- Risk alarm. One of the most devastating things for a lawyer is the sense that risks are not being signed-off properly, especially if this becomes systemic, when risks can pile up and the problem deepens. We’ll look at how to nip this pernicious problem in the bud, and how to de-escalate if things get unmanageable.
- Downward pressure. Managing with limited resources is par for the course in high growth companies, which need to run lean and run fast, but explaining Legal to a business which has little experience of what it can achieve is tricky. We’ll look at justifying your spend, resisting attacks on your budget and demonstrating value.
- Communication. Good communication is an obvious aim but can be challenging in a commercial environment which often feels alien to lawyers. We’ll look at how to plan your communications with the rest of the business, how to build alliances and how to build your personal brand, which will be key to your success.
- Strategy. All too often in-house lawyers are shut out of the strategy process in the companies they work for, which severely curtails their effectiveness and ability to add value. We’ll look at how to design a strategy for Legal and why it’s crucial to align it with the company’s strategy.
- Lawyer psyche. This is all the stuff you know but may not realise you know. Lawyer psyche is one of the main reasons lawyers struggle in-house. We’ll take a deep dive into the murky waters and look at how to adjust your mindset to match your intended role, so you don’t get submerged.