Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Obligatory Thanksgiving Post - where I really do give Thanks!

As the holidays approach I can't help but start mentally conducting a year in review.  It seems this year marked the rise of a new type of feminism.  Although in full disclosure, it may have always been there, and I only noticed it this year.  Maybe I've finally come to a point in my career/life where I'm not so inwardly focused that I can actually see what's happening around me on a macro level.  From the push for more Women in Tech to Emma Watson's He for She speech, even Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella saying that women shouldn't ask for raises has pushed the issue to the forefront - at least for me.  And as I see more women trying to make a difference, I'm struck by how lucky I am to have had so many strong women support me.  So, this year's Thanksgiving post is dedicated to thanking them.

It may have been my uncle who pushed me to dream big and who taught me to learn from every experience, but it was my aunt Diana Kaye that instilled a strong work ethic and a belief that I don't need to wait for someone to do it for me.  It's because of her that I know the value of hard work, even when no one else is watching.  So for that, Thank You Kaye-Kaye.

I've also been blessed by an awesome group of women, without whom I would have never made it through Professor Rose's contracts class, much less the rest of law school.  When the socially isolating aspects of law school started to get me down, one of my girls was always there to pick me up and get my head out of the rank related neurosis.  And for that I owe a big thanks to Stephanie Vinca-Sandell and Kari Jill Granville-Minton!

During my last year in law school, I interned at a then little known company named GoDaddy.  I worked for the toughest New Yorker with the biggest heart you'd ever met.  She's also one of the smartest people I've met.    She taught me more about how to work a room to get what you want while keeping your integrity and sincerity than I knew what to do with at the time.  She also taught me the difference between a mentor and a sponsor.  A mentor is a great person to have on your side, she will guide you, advise you and be a sounding board when you most need it.  A sponsor will go to bat for you.  Will risk their own reputation to give you chances you wouldn't otherwise have had.  Thanks to Ms. Nima Kelly for showing me just how important both mentors and sponsors are.

Because of Nima, I got the amazing opportunity to work for a women who epitomizes the word Mentor.  Christine Jones took every opportunity to challenge me and help me grow, both professionally and as an individual.  She taught me how to 'think like a lawyer' back when I didn't understand what that phrase meant.  I still go to her for advice on everything from making my next career move to what makes the most sense in support of my family.  And she always makes time for me.  Even though she's since moved on to bigger and better things, she answers the phone when I call and returns my emails the same day.  I wouldn't be who I am today without CJ.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And I wouldn't have met a lady who touched my life so profoundly, I may not have become a mom without her influence.  When Keena Willis came to work for CJ, she was a friendly co-worker.  But over the years we worked together she became family.  She was sister to me in a way that I had never connected to my own sisters.  Her strength as a single mom was an inspiration to me.  Her connection with her family and those of us who became family was awesome in the true definition of that word.  Although we've grown apart due to distance and other obligations, I know without a doubt that I could pick up the phone and she would be there for me instantly - because that's what family does. She doesn't know that the nights after I first found out I was pregnant I thought of her and knowing what family could look like comforted me - even though I was hundreds of miles away from my own.  Thank you Keena - you rock!

Speaking of family, my own sister Bonnie Bailey continues to inspire me with her drive to improve herself everyday.  After being knocked down time and again, she continues to get back up.  Each and every time stronger than before.  She reminds me that it's never to late to start again and no dream is too big.  She'll be graduating from college the same year her son graduates from high school.  And she's doing it as a scholar!  How she manages it all is still a mystery, and she still has time to listen to me vent about everything from diapers to egos.

Since moving to Austin, I've had so many friends, co-workers and mentors that I could go on for hours about each.  But it's getting late and I need a glass of wine - so I want to thank Sarah Tuchler, Tina Letcher, Connie Ruthven, Nancy Ebe, Amy Fitzgerald, Crystal Hill, Ann Benolken, Angela Vogeli and Leslie Thorne for showing me how powerful having a network of strong professional women can be, and how nice it is to have friends in a new home town!

I'm off to my wine - but don't be shy, who are you Thankful for this year?

Friday, October 31, 2014

In House Nightmares

I've not yet met a person who has never had a nightmare.  I've dreamt of aliens still my baby (while I was still pregnant with him) and a multitude of other equal crazy but frightening scenarios.  My boys wake up from nightmares induced from every scary movie they're not supposed to watch but that Daddy let them watch anyway.  And most lawyers I know have the occasional nightmare about never getting out of the student loan debt - okay, maybe that last one occurs more often when awake than asleep.  Point being we all have fears that manifest in our subconscious and affect our sleep.

In honor of Halloween, I'm going to answer a question often asked of general counsel - what keeps you up at night? Here are my top 3:

1.  An intense negotiation or high stakes deal will almost always result in the lack of sleep - even though it also results in me being extremely exhausted by the long hours and emotional roller coaster every one of these seems to bring.  When I do finally fall asleep I'll dream of the provision we're fighting over or the wording of that illusive clause.  It's infuriating when even sleep one give you a break.

2.  Compliance. Just that one word is enough to keep me up in to the wee hours.  The fact is that no matter how vigilant we are, there will always be some little thing that we didn't do.  I'm okay with that.  We do our best and we know what risk we take. What keeps me awake is the thought of what we don't know.  What authoritative body is going to claim jurisdiction next?  What is my IT team doing (or not doing) that I don't know about?  What are my sales people out there saying? And to whom?  Everything that's on my radar is fully assessed and managed within the best ability of my team.  But what about what's flying under my radar?  That's the stuff of nightmares.

3.  Office politics suck even when you love the people and the work.  But I've yet to work at any type of company in any capacity where office politics aren't important for your career and success at that employer.  Which means that sometimes who said what to whom will stick with you long after the work day ends.  And sometimes those concerns seep into your subconscious and your dreams, like the one time where my HR Director was chasing me around the office trying to give me the ax - literally.  Glad we sorted that one out.

Ok, now the top 3 (work related) things that keep me up at night.  What's seeped into your nightmares?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reflections and Gratitude

As I sit on the plane on my way home from visiting law school friends that I haven’t seen in a decade, I’m reflective of how much I have changed over that time.  I have had 5 different jobs at 5 very different companies.  I’ve gotten married, had kids and moved 1200 miles away from those very dear friends.  I’ve made new friends and new connections and I have grown tremendously as both a person and a lawyer.  But since this blog isn’t usually about what my kids are up to these days, for this post I’ll focus on the growth as a lawyer.

I’m a little surprised at how much I’ve learned, and how I can trace skill sets back to a particular position, company or experience.  My first out of school job was at GoDaddy.com back before it was a household name.  I learned a lot about technology, the internet and marketing.  I gained a lot of experience with trademarks and various laws surrounding marketing.  I learned about defamation and online trolls.  I even got a little exposure to how to respectfully deal with the alphabet soup of governmental agencies while protecting your client and looking out for the greater good.  From my boss there I learned about integrity and doing what you say you’re going to do.  I also learned what it’s like to have a great team surrounding you and meeting people who while their daily presence in your life may be brief their impact on you is ever lasting (yes, that’s you guys CJ, Keena and Nima!).

I moved to Austin reluctantly leaving a job I loved for the greater good of my family.  And quickly started working in a large microchip company you may have heard of, Advanced Micro Devices.  I worked there supporting a very fun group of procurement types.  I learned a lot about negotiations from them.  I gained a lot of experience in drafting and revising contracts.  And got more than a little exposure to how a contract management system can make the work of 3 attorneys doable for 1.5.  I was never bored and always busy, but I also learned that reviewing the same contract, with the same requests to modify by new suppliers day in and day out isn’t optimal for me.  I like more variety in my day and wanted to broaden my experience.

So when an ad popped up on my news feed looking for a company’s first in house counsel, I took a little of that youthful ego and applied. (of course I can do this, why not?  Doesn’t matter that I know nothing about ATMs, the banking industry, employment law or anything outside of negotiating contracts and supporting a very active marketing team!  Of course I can support an entire division encompassing the United States.) I hit the ground running in that job and learned so much in the first few months that looking back, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode.  I gained experience in employment law, managing litigation, creating contract management systems and protocols and lot of that “blocking and tackling” that is required when you’re the first.  I also learned a great deal about professional politics and working with very strong personalities, who had very strong opinions.  I discovered that I loved the variety, the work was interesting and there was definitely a lot of it.  But the politics was something I needed to get better at, half the job of a senior level in house attorney is managing people.  I needed more experience and few good mentors.

So when an opportunity came my way to jump into a similar role but at an internet e-com company whose organizational structure was more simple I took it.  I again delved deep into the blocking and tackling of setting up a legal department/function where there once was none.  I worked on improving my communication style with a group of very talented individuals.  I gained experience in larger litigation matters, creating IP management programs and started to wade into international matters with a UK presence.  I loved the technology and I loved the people.  But I also learned a very humbling lesson at the right time.  I can learn a lot about a lot, but I can’t be an expert in everything and there are some things that I can’t do.  I couldn’t make up for the lack of experience in certain areas that was shared by the team.  And I still needed to improve on my communication skills.  So I started a blog, started networking like a champ and have grown into a style of my own.  And I now understand that while you may have to adjust your style, if you have to change it completely for a job, it’s not the right job for you – no matter how much you love the work or the people.  I also know that it’s actually rewarding to step back and let someone who has the skills and style necessary to carry the company to where it needs to go. 


With my next move (and current gig) I have again taken on a lot of blocking and tackling and have utilized all of the skills each of my previous moves have given me.  I’ve put into practice the idea that matching my communication and style to that of my boss when selecting the job means as much as liking the technology and the company.  I’m getting great experience working with an equity backed company and the intricacies of dealing with the board, the fund, and the pace of constantly being in fund raising mode.  I’ve finally grown into that confidence I had taking on a role I should have run from, and I’m proud of who I’ve become and who I know I will continue to grow into.  And I owe a large part of that to the co-workers and mentors at each of the companies I worked for.  Many of whom may not even know they played that role for me.  So for everyone who I’ve crossed paths with on my professional journey – Thank you!  Hopefully I will make you all proud too and remember to pass on the great lessons you have taught me.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cybersecurity Rant

In 2013-2014, data breaches have gotten as much headline attention as ISIS, Ebola and the mid-term election.  All with very similar coverage, that is a lot of fear mongering and not much information.  Because I work (and have for the last decade) legal and compliance for companies where data security is a top priority as a requirement from our customer base, every time a new breach hits the news I get a ton of calls with questions and rants about what corporate America is (or is not) doing to protect against this new menace.

As long time readers know, from time to time I make a public service posts that have more to do with the latest pain in my ass than with the in house practice of law.  And lucky you, this is one of them.
We need to collectively take a deep breath and stop the mass panic over the cyber breach, and really please stop sending me invitations to the sky is falling CLEs on the subject.

Look, businesses need to be vigilant and take the appropriate actions to prevent as many breaches as possible.  This is a given.  I have a guy at work who spends all day long (and probably has nightmares all night long) dreaming up what could go wrong and trying to make sure we've prevented it.  I'm not going to give a pass to any company who puts their non-critical AC functions on the same server as their PCI data.  However, treating every breach like it's all caused by gross negligence, and having an media trial convicting every company of malice and greed because they didn't do enough to keep your data safe is ridiculous.  Have you kept your data safe?  Really?  Keep your insurance card in your glove compartment?  Yes?  It has your full name and home address on it.  If your car was made in the last few years, it also has a garage door opener built right in.  You've just given any wanna be car thief the means to rummage through your house.  Keep any personal information laying around at home? Your negligence has allowed a potential data breach of your house.  How could you!  You should be locked up and the key thrown away!  (Insert fake outrage here.)

Ya, not all breaches are created equal.  And that's why the reaction and way a breach is handled is so important.  And why we, the public, need to chill just a little.  Did you know that there are 47 different breach notification laws in the US alone?  And some of those laws conflict – in one you must notify the state AG first before notifying the public.  In another you must notify the public within a given timeline (one that doesn’t give much time to coordinate with other state’s AGs).  And then there are insurance requirements if you want the breach covered.  Not to mention the criminal investigations and the requests from the various alphabet soup agencies.  Dealing with a breach isn’t easy and it takes time to fully understand it.  And quite frankly, we the public, should want every organization to be able to focus on quickly finding out what caused it and stop it from continuing without having to divert attention to managing the public panic.

This is not to say that organizations need to step up their game. The number and scope of breaches this year has been unbelievable.  We need to be ever vigilant – the criminals are getting smarter, better technology and they spend as much energy building these operations as many founders of legitimate tech start ups do.  Organizations need to at least endeavor to be a diligent as they are in protecting our customers against their intent.   And that may mean reassessing what type of data we collect, how we collect it and what we do with it.  But you Mr./Mrs. G.Public, need to be diligent too.  Don’t give data to questionable sources, don’t jump to conclusions of malice and realize that for all the convenience and low prices you are demanding as a consumer comes at a price.  Either be willing to pay a bit more for better security or add yourself in the blame mix when your payment data gets compromised.  Oh – and stop complaining about it to the only person you know who actually understands how it all works.  OK end rant, back to our regularly scheduled program soon.


Monday, September 29, 2014

What I Wished I Learned in Law School

I'm coming up on my law school reunion and my social media circles are buzzing with former classmates reminiscing about what they recall from our shared law school experience.  While going over the various top 10 lists being posted, I can't help but also think about all the things law school didn't teach me.  Don't get me wrong, I loved my time at law school and the unique programs that I was able to participate in while obtaining a certificate from the Center for Law, Science and Technology within ASU.  The basic IP and contract drafting foundations I received has helped me tremendously - but most law students don't take those courses (if they're even offered at their school.) With articles coming out daily on the disastrous legal market  and struggling law school grads, I can't help but think if law schools incorporated some of these missing lessons into the course plan these baby lawyers would be more prepared for the real world - and thus more valuable to those of paying for them.

1. Your role as a lawyer is an adviser, not hall monitor.  Business make decisions everyday based on a calculated risk.  Your role as counsel is to provide the necessary information so that the business can assess the risk.  This includes worst case scenarios, but you also have to communicate the probability of that happening.  Yes, if customer A or vendor B breaches clause X as written it could be a catastrophe; but 99.9% of contracts are never materially breached and customer A depends on vendor B almost as much as vendor B depends on customer A. So the likelihood of a situation that clause X would cover can't be handled through the ordinary course of business is not very probable.  Let's not hold up a multi-million dollar deal that means a lot to both companies because of the .1% chance.

2. They won't always listen to you - don't take it personally.  You're used to being one of the smartest people in the room.  You're confident and persuasive and people generally do what you want them to do.  And then you go in house.  Half the time you're not invited to the decision making conversations and when you are, they're just as likely to ignore your advice as they are to take it.  It's not personal.  You haven't lost any IQ points and you are just as persuasive.  But you only represent a piece of any decision being made.  Sometimes, those other pieces outweigh you, even when you're right.  It may be economic, it may be political, it may be someone's ego.  It doesn't matter, because it has very little to do with you personally.  If you find you're being ignored a lot and left picking up the pieces after everything blows up time and again - find a different employer.  On the other hand, if your voice is occasionally drowned by competing interests, but the business doesn't materially suffer from it - suck it up.  That's your job.

3. Math is way more important that you think it is.  I often joke that I became a lawyer because I'm too squeamish to be a doctor and couldn't stand the math required to get an MBA.  It's partially true - I can't stand any bodily fluids and math has never been one of my favorite subjects.  But it's absolutely critical to have at least a general understanding the basics of accounting, what a P&L is, how to read a balance sheet, calculating ROI, etc.  You can't protect your client against the financial risks if you don't understand what your client does and how they actually make money.  And you'll never be invited into a board room if you don't understand why the cost to acquire is an important metric.

4. Soft skills rule over legal acumen almost every time.  You may be able to quote the UCC verbatim, or draft the most pristine patent application.  But if you can't communicate effectively to every member of your team, then you will fail.  That means you must be able to have a conversation about proper copyright clearance with the intern working in marketing as well as be comfortable discussing the status of that matter with the board.  At the end of the day, neither audience has to be your best friend, but they do need to respect you and feel like you are contributing to the conversation.  That means you have to learn how to read your audience, and provide the level of detail necessary to convey your message without getting preachy.  You also need to maintain your confidence if intensely questioned by the CEO or other executive.  Learn to build your executive presence and invest time in mastering effective communication.  I promise you won't regret it.

5.  They hint at it in law school and you've heard it growing up - it's not what you know but who you know.  When you're looking for the second (or third, or fourth) in house job the truth of that statement will hit you like a ton of bricks.  You can never stop networking.  You may love your job and then the economy tanks and your company does layoffs.  Or the economy is great and your company gets bought.  Or your current GC isn't going anywhere and you want to move up.  There's a million reason why you will be looking for that next job and there's a million ways to get it.  One of the least likely ways is through a posting on a job board.  Never stop networking.  Grow your network by meeting new people.  Improve your network by adding value to those in it.  Give referrals, help others find jobs when they're looking, connect those with similar interests or goals.  Become a valuable person to have in their network.  It takes effort, and time that's not allotted for in your daily job.  But let this one item fall and it could greatly damage your career even if you are the best lawyer in the world.

That's my top 5 'What I wished I learned in Law School'.  What are yours?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Metrics

One of the great things about being in house is that we don't have billable hours.  No tracking our time in 6 minute increments means we can spread our focus to things that don't always have a direct connection to the bottom line.  However, we can also be seen as chasing rabbits and completely ineffectual in managing our resources - especially during budget time.  Unlike at a firm, it's not apparent to the folks in charge of the purse strings what we actually do everyday.  To be honest, it's not entirely apparent to me what we do everyday.  So saying that I need another body or expensive technology to do it is going to naturally be met with a lot of resistance.

Enter the wonder of metrics.  When you work for a technology company, you quickly learn the value of metrics.  You also learn that metrics, like any other statistic, can give you a flawed view if you're not measuring the right things or don't have the right benchmarks to gauge your metrics against.  And that's where we in house leaders struggle.  How do we measure the value of our teams contributions?  How to we illustrate what that means to the stakeholders within the organization?  And how can we translate that into hard needs when it comes time to allocate the limited resources of the company?

I'd love to say I have all the answers, but I don't.  What I do have is some practices that I have put in place to help me tell the story internally, and to assist me personally in managing my team.  First priority is to establish the company priorities.  Do you operate in a contracts economy - everything negotiated?  Then you need to have some visibility into that workload.  Does innovation drive your revenue?  Then measure your patenting process, not just the number of patents actually obtained.  I send out an annual survey via Survey Monkey to the leadership team.  The survey focuses in part on where does the business want to prioritize - does it take long to get a contract reviewed? Are we ignoring important employee relations matters?  Does our compliance program have any holes?  The other part of the survey focuses on client satisfaction - are the legal team members easy to work with?  Do they provide the answers you were looking for, or go off on unrelated tangents?  Are they providing solutions when raising concerns or just throwing water on your ideas?  The results of this survey, along with the overall company strategies and industry environment help guide me to what I need to measure.

Next, we need to figure out how to measure those priorities.  Do you just count the number of contracts reviewed, or do add for complexity?  Do we include average review time?  For first review only or for the process from submission to signature?  How do we measure the risk management efforts that actually avoid the easy to measure but costly matters like training for managers so we don't have employment claims filed?  Do we measure the number of invention disclosures submitted, or only the number of applications worked on?  How do we account for the hours spent cultivating the process so that inventors remember to submit their invention disclosures, or the hours spent evaluating ideas that fail to meet the requirements of an "invention"?   The way you measure your priorities will vary greatly depending on the industry, the company and the priorities.  I measure number of contracts and time for review from first turn.  I count the number of training sessions for risk avoidance and compliance issues, as well as the number of cross functional projects I work on where my primary purpose is risk avoidance or compliance.  I measure hours spent with inventors and the number of disclosures submitted.  I also try to measure how effectively we're managing the budget we do have - where do we spend the money?  have we reduced outside counsel spend? Or at least refocused it to more value added areas?  Are we utilizing the technology we've paid for or should we cancel the services, etc.

Of course none of those measurements mean a thing without a frame of reference.  I can review 100 contracts a month and my CFO will say, "and?"  if I don't also show him that the average in house attorney focusing solely on contracts averages around 30-40 contracts a month (at least according to my informal inquiries with the local in house community).  Now, 100 seems to be overwhelming and he understands the request for a new contracts attorney.  If I'm filing an average of patent a month or more, I can translate that into outside counsel costs and hours spent to cultivate that to justify the expense of bringing that in house.  By measuring how effectively I'm managing the budget, I get more respect and credibility when I say it's not enough.  And by showing that we've managed to reduce transaction times from 6 weeks to 2 weeks, I've got a champion in my sales team who doesn't want to go back to 6 weeks.  None of which would be possible if I couldn't prove where the value had been added and how we can add more.  How do you justify your resource needs?

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.