Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Finding Your Voice

I'm going to get a little political in the post, which I don't normally do.  But, I had some interesting conversations over the last few days that made me want to speak up.  One friend has recently left her company in large part because she felt like her voice wasn't being heard.  We spoke a lot about how as professional women it's a constant struggle to just be heard.  It isn't enough to earn a seat at the table.  You have to have a voice once you get there.  Another friend who just welcomed a new baby is frustrated by the feminization of his desire to have balance with his work and family. (I know feminization is not a real word - but I'm using it anyway!)  We spoke about how the professional world pretends to be gender neutral but it's not really.

It was slightly discouraging to hear my first friend's frustration, given that she's spent over thirty years in the industry and has a lot of value to add. It's sad that in 2014, this is still a problem.  Her experience and track record got her a seat at the table. That's what we're all told we need to do.  It's a battle cry of the modern professional woman. Get at the table and you'll be taken seriously, you'll be able to make an impact!  If only this were true.

The glass ceiling still exists even in companies with female executives.  It's just more nuanced now.  More and more women are making it to senior level management positions in name only.  Once there, they become there as the 'doers' and 'cheerleaders'. The men are still making all of the decisions with very little input from the women in the room. Often women are steamrolled by more aggressive communication styles so their voice in the conversation is lost. Once the decisions are made the women are given marching orders. They lead their troops in the direction that the guys in charge tell them to, often frustrated over the fact that given the chance they would do differently.

I've felt this myself in several positions and continue to witness it today with the majority of my female colleagues.  We're in the room, at the table, but no one is listening.  We're not given the opportunity to speak up or when we do we are shouted over or down.  If we're too aggressive we're labeled as hard to work with and discounted.  If we're too nice or political we're labeled as push overs, passive aggressive or manipulative and discounted. And many men who lend their voice to the women or join their cause are called out for being 'soft' and discounted.  I know of at least two men in senior executive positions who see this happening, are extremely frustrated by it, but don't know what to do to change it - so they do nothing.

I've witnessed men come in and say the exact thing that a woman has been shouting for weeks - sometimes using the exact same words.  Somehow the message is better received the second time around.  I'm not sure why.  I know the male members of these management teams.  None of them belong on the set of Mad Men.  They all have strong wives, daughters and other women in their lives that they respect.  But they don't hear our voices - even when we're "at the table".  Is there a more effective way to communicate?  How do we teach it to women? Is there additional training we can give executives to make them aware of the unintentional bias?  How do we raise awareness without creating animosity?

From an in house point of view, this frustrates me on two levels. First, as a professional woman, I'm constantly weighing my interactions with my male colleagues.  I often work twice as hard as I should have to just to have my voice heard.  And I just as often don't get ignored.  Second, as the lawyer protecting the company, this behavior is a law suit waiting to happen.  How can I protect the company against claims rising out of this frustration?  My friend resigned from her job and just moved on.  But she could have filed a claim, and how would her company defend against it?  I don't have the answers.  But I'm open to suggestions!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Fish Out of Water - what to do when you don't have the expertise.

Within a week after I had passed the bar and was officially given the title of “Staff Attorney” at my employer the CEO came into my office to ask my opinion about something.  My GC was in a meeting (she was otherwise never out of the office) and he needed an answer but didn’t want to disturb the meeting. I was stunned.  I didn’t really know anything about anything at that point – or at least I didn’t think I did.  I stammered a bit and told him I’d look into it and have an answer within the hour.  Luckily for me it was a relatively easy question and I actually did know the answer but wasn’t confident in it.

Since that day I’ve learned that an in house attorney is often faced with answering question we aren’t fully trained on.  There are two schools of thoughts on this – some prefer to engage the experts and hire outside counsel to address every distinct area of law other than what you’ve developed a high level of competency in.  The other thought process is to learn as much as you can and engage the experts only where the risk warrants the added expense.  For those of us in leaner startups, we often take the second approach – both out of general philosophy and financial need.  I don’t have the budget to engage outside counsel every time a general IP or employment law question comes up – so I’ve learned to become a generalist. 

The trick with this second approach is knowing when the risk is high enough that outside counsel should be brought in (which requires you admitting to yourself that although you’re a good generalist, you don’t know everything).  Additionally, you have to make sure that your client understands where you’re level of expertise actually lies.  Over the years I’ve gained more experience in certain areas than in others and feel like I’ve got a good level of expertise in my core areas.  But I wouldn’t attempt to draft a patent or a motion.  I might be great negotiating at the business table, but if rules of evidence are a primary concern in the conversation you want someone who does that stuff daily.  I can keep the minutes of our board meetings and make sure that the resolutions passed are properly documented – but you want a specialist working on your IPO. 

In order for my approach to be successful, I need to have confidence in both what I know and what I don’t, and I have to communicate that well to my client.  They need to have confidence I know what I’m talking about when I tell them they need to make that requested accommodation for the employee and that we don’t need outside counsel to file that trademark, my paralegal can do that just fine for 1/10th of the cost.  I also need them to not freak out when I tell them that we’ll need to add $10k to the cost of the deal because I’m going to need outside counsel to help make sure that the agreement is tight and in line with the tax objectives we have for the transaction.  The client needs to know I can't give them tax advice or file that patent lawsuit in the EDTX.
  

Occasionally, I still need time to research answers for my CEO.  But now, I’m confident that I’ll find the answer within the timeline and that I know when to pick up the phone to my specialist.  So what's your approach?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

New Mantra: Proactive, Not Reactive

The challenge for an in house legal team is no longer how to avoid being labeled the "Department of No", it's now how to truly add value as a partner and not just a resource.  Many of my colleagues will bemoan the fact that they're not brought into issues early enough - and I've been known to utter that complaint a time or two myself.  But if we're truly honest we have to admit that part of the blame for that lies on us.  By definition a lawyers job is often seen as reactionary.  We review contracts after the relationship has begun, we respond to complaints after they have been filed - of file them after a wrong has occurred.  We have a solid reputation for helping to solve problems after they come up.

Where we need to improve is being seen as someone that can help avoid the problems in the first place.  Making that jump requires a change in culture.  We need to take a cue from our business partners and learn how to better predict the needs of our clients and satisfy them ahead of time.  Our partners in IT have embraced the Agile methodology allowing them to create stories to truly understand the users requirements and solve for them before they become issues.  We've even established chief customer officers who analyze surveys and data to help predict and ultimately drive customer behavior by ensuring that the customer experience meets or exceed expectations.  So why can't we do that in the legal department?

The first step is to admit that we have a problem. Our processes are mostly set up to trigger after the pain has begun.  So let's revamp them to add value to other teams while getting us into the game a little earlier.  A friend of mine is revamping her entire contract process focusing on how to decrease the salespersons time spent in the contracting process while increasing the accuracy and timeliness of information sent to accounting for better invoicing.  If it works they way she envisions it she will save hours of time and frustration for two very important partners and set the expectation that she (and her legal team) can help to get things done faster and better if brought in early and more often.

Similarly, I go through an audit of our templates at least once a year focusing on where are the pain points for my business colleagues. What do they need the rights to do?  Or to restrict the customer from doing?  Where are they spending too much time negotiating or administering terms that only makes sense to lawyers? By getting their input and revising the terms before they have to negotiate them or deal with their consequences I've given them an opportunity to see me as someone who helps avoid the problem in the first place.  Now I'm invited to more meetings and am requested to advise on a broader range of topics because the focus of my team is on being proactive, not reactive.  It's become our department motto and a guiding principle in virtually everything we do.

So how are you becoming more proactive?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Down with the Department!

At multiple CLEs I've attended in the last few months I've noticed that presenters like to talk about how we have to "move from being the 'Department of No".  After the statement is made, I look around the room and see a lot of nodding heads.  However, after the session when  I'm speaking to fellow in house folks we all appear to have moved past the 'Department of No' mentality a long time ago and are really looking for how we can move into the next step of becoming a truly strategic partner.

After talking it over with a few of my brethren (I admit there was wine involved), we've decided that the first step is to kill the myth of the "Department".  Except in increasingly rare circumstances, today's in house counsel is ingrained to say yes whenever they can.  The main value we bring is in helping the business accomplish it's goals within the legal framework our industries operate in.  As the leader of my in house team, anyone with the 'Department' mentality wouldn't get past the hiring process, much less last long on my team.  Yet, I'm still hounded by the myth at every conference and with almost every interaction with counsel and lay person alike.  It's hard to get to the next step when everyone seems fixated on killing the dead horse that is the previous step.

So for all CLE presenters, fellow in housers, and anyone else listening - I have a very simple request.  Let's kill the myth of the Department  of No once and for all and start the having the real conversation of what to do at the strategy table now that you're there.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Encouraging Growth Realistically

Here we are in April again, and once again I'm focused on raising Autism Awareness - which is a year long project in our house, but I get a little help in April from the rest of the world.  In keeping with my tradition of posting about the what we can learn from the autistic community and apply to in house practice or law department management, here's my Autism Awareness post:

After first getting LG's diagnosis, I reflected a lot on what Autism would mean to him and our family.  Over time, it's seeped into other aspects of my life and I've realized that there's so much I can take from him and apply to my professional life.

Lately, I've been focused on longer term issues - How do I help him reach his maximum potential while also helping him deal with limitations completely out of his control?  How do I refuse to let him use his Autism as an excuse, but also recognize that it does put some things outside of his reach?  And how do I, as his mother, know where to draw that line?  Autism is a spectrum and his abilities are also spectrum like.  He may be brilliant, but is probably not a savant.  He is capable of behaving without tantrums, but is susceptible to melt downs.  He may be able to hold down a job someday, but probably won't be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (not saying that an Autistic individual can't be, there may very well be someone on the spectrum that would excel at that job, but LG is not likely to be one of them.)  So how do I tell him to try hard in school, get the best grades he can, behave the best he can, be the best he can? All while knowing that Autism has taking some of his options away from him and the best that *he* can be will be drastically different than the best a NT person could be? - Not worse, just different, and a different that I can't predict.

As I struggle with these thoughts, I'm struck by the fact that they aren't so far removed from my job as a manager.  How do I help my employees reach their full potential (productivity, professional growth, etc), when there are budget, process or technology limitations that they have no control over?  How can I make sure that they use all the resources we have while knowing that we may not yet have what they need, and may never get it?  How do I keep them from using the external limitations as an excuse not to succeed? Where to I draw the line between "just get it done" and "it is what it is"?

For now, I'm focused on open communication -  clear expectations of both LG and my employees, along with an candid acknowledgement of the things outside of our control.  We all have outside factors that shape our world, but we still have a responsibility to make our world the best it can possibly be.  If everyone understands that mission, then hopefully we'll get there together and I'll be able to help LG and my employees be their best in spite of the limitations the world puts on us.  I still don't have all the answers to either side of this challenge.  I'm all ears if you do!  I'm confident I'll figure it out, both as a mother and a boss (but I reserve my rights to get it wrong along the way)!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Autism Awareness - Our latest "incident"

April is Autism Awareness month and April 2nd is World Autism Awareness day.  In honor of this I usually post something about how I've applied a lesson learned from Autism to practicing in house or the management of the legal department.  While I have one of those prepared and will post it soon, something happened over the weekend that I had to discuss first.

As my regular readers will know, one of my boys is on the spectrum.  In my offline life I'm very open about it and how it affects our family.  For the most part, it's just become part of our identity and our routines may not be what yours are, but they're normal for us.  I can almost forget that LG isn't like other kids.  Until he has an "incident".

Over the weekend we had an incident.  We were window shopping for a grill at Target when my youngest, the Rockstar, decided he wanted a hat.  LG was sitting in the cart busy with a book while my husband and Z were looking at the grills so we split up.  I took the younger two over to look at hats, which are an entire store away from the seasonal stuff hubby and Z was looking at.  LG looked up and discovered that his big brother wasn't around and got freaked.  He jumped out of the cart screaming Z's name.  I caught him and tried to calm him down and told him to wait while I turned the cart containing Rockstar around to head back to the seasonal aisle.  But before I could turn around, LG was gone.  He'd taken off to find Z.  With my heart in the pit of my stomach I yelled and ran after him, but couldn't find him in the most direct route.  Seeing my husband and no LG, I started to freak.  While he went aisle by aisle looking for him, I went to the front of the store to ask that they post people by the doors to make sure he didn't wander into the parking lot - something a lot of autistic kids do.

Target's response was awesome.  I don't know if they train on how to handle kids on the spectrum or if this store was an anomaly, but they sprang into action.  Two people jumped to the doors, they gave his description out over their radios (including that he was autistic), and they quickly found him back by the Easter toys/candy.  They didn't try to grab him, when he wouldn't engage with them they didn't try to force it.  They just calmly radioed back his location and followed him until my husband could get there.  What could have turned into a very traumatic event for LG was completely avoided due to the calm way those employees handled the situation.  It may not seem like a big thing, but for a family having dealt with meltdowns caused by strangers trying to engage him and his affinity for taking off when he gets focused on something, this was huge.  So I wanted to take a minute to post a huge Thank You to Target.

I know they've not had the best media lately, but they've earned a customer for life, and they've shown how just a little awareness can change everything.  So whether you 'light it up blue' or 'tone it down tan', take a minute today to share how autism has impacted your life - raise awareness and let's make my Target incident a regular response rather than such an exception that I have to blog about it.  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Toot Your Own Horn, But ...

It's been awhile, the new job has happily kept me very busy, but I've missed sharing my ramblings with you.  Speaking of ramblings, my favorite uncle had a lot of great sayings - he's the one who taught me about jackasses.  If there was anything he said more often than that one, it was that you have to "toot your own horn because no one else will do it for you."

When I was 16 I had no idea what he meant.  Over the years, I've learned the wisdom of that saying, and have slowly learned to speak up for myself professionally, which was hard for me as I'm an introvert and don't like drawing attention to myself generally.  However, I started with touting the "wins" that are less obvious - a favorable settlement that didn't cost the company as much as it could have, closing a deal quickly without giving away the store or even just reducing the amount of outside counsel spend for avoidable issues, and went on from there.

While it's necessary to be your own biggest cheerleader, it's a fine line between informing relevant people about your success and a more unsavory bragging.  As lawyers, that line gets even thinner as we're fighting the stereotype of the know-it-all blow hard overachiever.  And as in-house lawyers our jobs get even harder because our bosses and colleagues don't always know what a "win" looks like.

Because of that, my tune these days revolves more around metrics and bench marking than soft wins. I only sing it to people I know will appreciate them, and I try to focus more on how my team is helping the company achieve it's goals more than what a great job I'm doing personally.  I'm seeing a lot more success and recognition from this approach, and don't feel like I'm artificially fighting for a spotlight.

So, go ahead and toot your own horn - just make sure it's a catch tune.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Goals - a year in review

At the beginning of the year I put out my goals for all to see in my New Year's post.  So now it's time to pay the piper and see how I did.  I had a couple of professional goals, one to strengthen my existing network.  Once again my network has come through for me when I really needed it and helped me land my newest gig, for which I am extremely grateful - it's an awesome job at a great company with a great team!  Thank you Amy!  But did I do what I could to help my network?  I made introductions as often as I could and referrals to very qualified folks - both public and private.  I supported a few friends in their political endeavors - if you're an AZ resident vote Christine Jones for governor and Tempe/east valley residents should definitely choose Kari Jill Granville-Minton for their newest University Lakes JP. (Both are incredibly intelligent and talented women with a lot of integrity and Arizona's best interests at heart.)  So I guess that one is still a work in progress, though it's better this year than it was last and I guess that's all you could ask for.

I also committed to becoming acquainted with a new area of the law.  I didn't take the courses I thought I would when I wrote that goal, but I have updated my knowledge in the areas surrounding payments as a part of my new job.  Still have a lot of learning to do, but I'm on my way.  Mark another one as a work in progress.

On the personal front I had two goals as well.  To spend more quality time with my family if not more quantity and to spend more "me" time without the guilt.  I took the summer off and got to spend an amazing amount of time with the boys.  I played games I've never heard of, supported them during their growing pains and got to know each of them just a bit better.  Since going back to work, I feel like we still have that strong bond that we forged over the summer and our time together is definitely more quality than before.  While this will be an on going goal for me for the rest of their lives, I think we've got the recipe down for now.

I still struggle with the "me" time without guilt, but have gotten a lot better at the "we" time without guilt.  We now make it a point to go out at least once a month without the kids.  We go to a movie or dinner or just shopping in peace.  We talk about goals, interests, or just general adult conversation that doesn't revolve around the kids.  I think this has brought us closer this year and strengthened our marriage. I'll get to the me time this year.  It may be easier to do now that I feel more secure in the relationships I have at home.

I know it's New Year's Eve and I should have my 2014 goals all in order.  But honestly, 2013 had so many ups and downs that I'm not sure where to start.  I'll need to think about it a bit more.  For now I'm happy to have survived 2013 and come out better for it.   

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dear Santa, a wish list from an in house lawyer

Dear Santa,

I know that it's Christmas Eve and you're busy delivering toys (or coal) to little boys and girls across the globe, but I haven't had time until now to write my wish list.  See I've just started a new job and it's been a bit hectic.  Combine that with playing Santa for my three boys in what little spare time there is and there hasn't been much "me" time in the last few weeks.  So I'm reaching out on the internet as only a blogger can.  My list has been years in the making. I haven't been at this new place long enough to make a full list, but over the past decade I've accumulated a few wishful thoughts.  Let's see some Christmas magic knock a few off the list?

I'd really like a contract management system that works exactly as advertised without a Phd in computer programming.  Something easy enough that sales people will adopt it without me threatening to withhold commission payments and thorough enough that it will actually make due diligence less of a night mare.

I'd LOVE it if the lawyer on the other side of the table didn't try to intimidate me by touting his resume or classification as some 'industry expert".  I get it, you're old and you've practiced for a long time.  Oh and you don't have ovaries so you're better than me.  Now that that's out of the way, can we also stop referring to female lawyers as "sweetie", "honey" or whatever other patronizing term of the day is.  I went to law school, took the bar and have sat in just as many negotiations, war rooms and board meetings as most of my peers.  Give it a rest!

Even better would be sales people who don't wait until the week before end of quarter/year to "rush" that one customer agreement because we need to make our numbers and no other sales person has procrastinated so I must not have anything to do.

Maybe, while we're getting really wishful, we can get support, transparency, and the tools needed to actually be effective at my job from my management team/board.  I'd spend a lot less time cleaning up the mess if someone would just let me sit in on a meeting or two, or let me buy that contract management system that won't meet my expectations (but is still better than nothing.)

CLE's that are actually relevant to my in house practice would be great!  You know, the kind that isn't just cover for some firm to tell me that I can't do it in house and I need to hire them.  Or buy their software.  Or give over all my data to the government.

Most of all, I just want a computer that doesn't crash when I'm 80% done with my redline/brief/email.  Or 10 minutes before deadline.  I back up often, but the 2-3 hours of IT recovery time kill me.  Every. Freakin'. Time.

As a bonus, if you think I've been really good this year, can we find someway so that all the important school events aren't scheduled on the same day/time as the board meeting, conference call, or staff meeting?  That would be ever so helpful, and the boys would thank you too.

Obviously all this won't fit in your bag of tricks, so maybe just the computer one?  I'm still pretty new at this job so maybe these won't be an issue.  So far they've been great.  But, ten years of experience tells me that my next 'industry expert' is waiting for me on the next sales call, which will be scheduled on December 29th - because numbers.

Happy holidays to all my in house brethren, or other want to be in house lurkers.  Share your wish list in the comments - just in case the big guy is taking a break from delivering toys and wants a real challenge.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Three P's: People, Politics and Priorities

I've recently started a new job and I'm reminded once again that the key to success for an in house lawyer is often not in how well they can evaluate the legal issues.  True success lies in the the three P's:  People, Politics and Priorities.  In an ideal world, we'd have genuine, personal connections with everyone we work with, there'd be no power plays or territorial behavior, and our legal priorities would line up perfectly with the business priorities.  If that describes your work world - play the lottery, you are that lucky.

For the rest of us, figuring out how to navigate the three P's while maintaining our integrity and professional responsibilities can be challenging.  Often the most complicated part of in house practice is not applying archaic legal principles to modern situations, but dealing with the personalities of the people you have to support.  Whether it be a VP whose risk profile is completely opposite to yours or a new sales person who thinks he should run the show, managing your relationships with people is critical to your ability to get the business to listen to you when it's important.  We all have personalities that we're drawn to or want to avoid. Unfortunately, we have to work with all types.  While it's always best to try to make that genuine connection with people - they'll come to you more often, sooner and with more important matters if they genuinely like you - it's not always possible.  For example, I'm not an outdoorsy sports person.  When I meet the guys and gals who would rather be running or camping, I don't usually have much in common with them.  It's hard to establish a rapport with someone whose interests are so foreign to you.  So you fake it a little.  I'm never going enjoy spending an afternoon with bugs buzzing around me while I'm too hot or too cold.  However I can enjoy the photography they bring back to the office or cheer them on in their next half marathon.  Over time a real connection may break through, and if not, at least I'm being likeable if not truly liked.

The more difficult challenge is the internal politics that surround any workplace.  Some of it comes from having real relationships with people, but more often it becomes an issue when there's a player who isn't interested in creating real relationships.  It doesn't really matter whether that's because they territorial or just ambitious and don't plan on sticking around for too long.  With these people you must be 'strategically professional' (a phrase I picked up from a colleague).  You're not getting anywhere with these people unless you can be valuable to them.  For these relationships you are always 'on' proving where you add value to the organization and their personal goals.  But be careful not to become too entrenched with a political player.  They don't tend to stay in one place for too long, or if they do it's because they are not afraid of throwing anyone under the bus when it suits them.

Even if you do get the relationship piece right and navigate the politics like a pro, you're still stuck with trying to prioritize your legal issues in a way that syncs up with the business.  This means matching risk profiles, budgets, goals and projected outcomes with the real day to day work your team does.  It's not always easy drawing the connection between your compliance program and business goals.  Especially if you haven't made the right people connections so that you get the inside information on what are the true business goals.  Best practice is to tie your priorities to the bottom line when possible.  When not directly possible, tie it to the less measurable annual goals or to some other teams goals.  Creating contract process that adds much needed controls on inconsistent practices?  Sell it as reducing the transaction time, providing reporting and insight into customer/employee behaviors or a reduction in due diligence cost and time.  And don't forget that the day to day needs will almost always outweigh the project timelines.  No one cares what great project you've just accomplished or what it does for the company if it takes two weeks to get an NDA reviewed and signed.

With a little skill and a lot of luck, navigating the three P's well will enable you to do great things in your career.  Or ensure that you never go anywhere.