Thursday, August 9, 2012

Trust. Also known as the In House Counsel Killer.

So you've graduated top of your class (or near top) from a top law school.  You've worked for a few years in big law and have consistently been held out as a star performer.  For whatever reason, you think you'd like to move in house so you set up some interviews and you blow them away.  Of course you get the job.  Now you're already planning your career succession to make GC in the next 5 years.

Unfortunately, six months into it, you're no longer a star performer.  You constantly butt heads with your internal clients and you struggle with the office politics.  You can't understand why they don't listen to you and do as you advise.  You find yourself shut out of important meetings, only to be brought in when something starts to go wrong.

At first you'll blame the business people.  They're unsophisticated, they don't understand what the consequences of not listening to you are, they're prejudiced against attorneys, etc.  You never had this problem in private practice.  Everyone knew how good you were and sought you out for your expertise.  No one questioned, no one challenged.  These people are just impossible.  And some of that might be true.  But that's not the whole story.  You did not gain their trust.  And without trust, you are useless.  No matter matter how smart you are, or how right you always are.  If your business people don't trust you - you're sunk.

Gaining trust is difficult, especially with a team that hasn't worked with many attorneys before.  It may be that they've got preconceived ideas of attorney's being distrustful (ambulance chasers) or roadblocks to progress (hall monitors).  They will test you early and often to see how far they can push you.  In the name of "teamwork" they will push you past your comfort zone to see if you are a roadblock.  They will bring you questionable issues to see how flexible you are.  You will hear, "there is no black and white, only a lot of grey" a lot.  It is expected that you help them navigate the grey.  Of course if you are too risk averse you fail the test.  And if you are too liberal, you fail the test.   The trick here is to ask a ton of questions in the first few weeks.  Create a risk profile for each major internal client.  Assess which ones will want to operate in the "grey" and which will want to be clearly black and white.  While you're advice shouldn't change drastically - after all, the law is the law, the way you deliver it should.  "Grey" types want to hear a legitimate risk assessment of the issue, i.e. 'If we do what you're asking these three things may become issues.  The likelihood of each is X, the cost of X is Y.  (and here's the important part...) My recommendation is we do what you want but make Z modification to minimize the risk.' Black and White types will want a simple yes or no.  Sometimes, even giving an explanation of why will turn them off and turn you into a "know it all".

Even if you pass the initial test and gain their trust, you can lose it with one bad experience.  Give an answer that makes someone's life a little more difficult and you'll lose trust points.  Suddenly, you're no longer on their side.  Sometimes in house practice is a lot of "us vs. them", even within a company.  It's a very valuable skill to learn how to be Switzerland.  If that's not possible, then you'll need to figure out who the internal power brokers are and make sure that you're on their team.  If you lose trust, you'll need to have some honest conversations with members of the team and yourself.  Is it possible to get it back?  If not, you need to start looking for a new job.  Without the trust of ALL of your internal clients, the distrust will spread like a virus and sooner or later you will find that for the first time in your life you failed.

No comments:

Post a Comment