When an in-house lawyer looks at the risks facing their new employer, they should see that the greatest business risks are not about being perfectly right. Often the greater risks to the business would be an inability to act or make decisions. A role as an in-house lawyer is very different from private practice. Lawyers should leave egos at the door and recognise that they are valued for their skills and knowledge and not necessarily for their status as a professional. But with an understanding of the business, the in-house lawyer can use their knowledge and skills to make things better.
There will be immediate ‘low-hanging fruit’, obvious to anyone legally trained, which can be quickly resolved and thus demonstrate the immediate benefits of the lawyer being present. But the real fun starts when you understand the priorities of the business and contribute to strategy. At that point an effective in-house lawyer can start to focus on innovation. If innovation is ‘making things better’ and invention ‘making new things’ then the in-house lawyer has a role in both innovation and invention.
The in-house lawyer can support innovation by simply adding their own elements of knowledge and skill to existing processes or solutions. They can also innovate by giving the business confidence to simplify things and make processes easier. They do this by helping the business to understand legal risk and focusing attention only where it is needed. Because lawyers often think and operate in a different way to their peers in business, there may also be a period during which the business needs to become familiar with and trust the in-house lawyer’s ‘different’ contribution.
In the early stages, the in-house lawyer may have to show the organisation the benefits of smaller changes before being given the trust and permission to pursue the really transformative ideas. However, once you have this permission, the opportunity to use your skills to explain, test and experiment - and thus add innovation (or invention) to the business - can be significant and hugely rewarding.
It is not all plain sailing, though. Viewed one way, the job of an in-house lawyer is ‘half policeman and half fireman’. People recognise your value more easily when you are ‘putting out fires’ and solving obvious problems than when you are pointing out safe ways of doing things. Most in-house lawyers must try and balance the roles of fixer, enforcer and innovator. In those circumstances the opportunity for innovation can be overlooked.
So how does the in-house lawyer innovate? First, get to know your job - I call this phase ‘taking the tiger for a walk’. Approach your new job like you have been asked to take a large tiger for a walk with nothing but a thin piece of string as a lead. If asked to do that, you would first let the tiger take the lead: respond to its needs, go where it wants to go, learn about it, try not to upset it too much! It is only after the tiger learns to trust and like you that it might allow you to gently pull on the string to guide it in a different direction.
Second, you need to deal with the ‘abominable no men’. All large organisations have them. Usually borne out of insecurity, a person with a little knowledge that the organisation finds valuable will begin to build a power base around that knowledge. To maintain their fragile value, the individual may over-emphasise the risk of not having their input. Thus processing delays are introduced.
Some, but by no means all, may be lawyers. Remember that your reputation, which will earn you the trust that will allow you to innovate, will (at least in part) be judged by those around you. If you have an abominable no man in you team, it is helpful to give them greater confidence by supporting them to gain a wider set of skills or encouraging them to buy into a wider strategic view.
As an experienced lawyer, it is easy to recognise those spending an appropriate amount of time on a complex project and filling the ‘policeman’ and ‘fireman’ roles well, compared with those who are acting as abominable no men. With the ‘no men’ dealt with, you can move from being reactive to being proactive. Once you and your team are functioning well and supporting the business as it wishes, you can begin to deliver what the business needs.
Perhaps you begin by expanding the role that you or your team will deliver in areas that are not yet addressed in the business, so that it is safe to start offering solutions and innovations. In an enlightened organisation, the opportunities to do this should come frequently and early, but in some cases it could take a few months. In truth, your solutions will not be truly valuable until you understand the business. Use every opportunity to find out more.
Once they understand the business and are trusted within it, lawyers are a very powerful force in a business. If allowed access to a problem, it is more likely than not that a good lawyer will be able to offer a solution. Innovation is not difficult. However, you have to be prepared to look closely at the problem and understand each of the elements required to create a solution.
In terms of innovation, the other way in-house lawyers can help is to give the organisation confidence to make its processes simpler. If the business is not confident about legal issues and risks, it may for example require that all decisions are made at the highest level (by the owners or directors) when in fact certain lower-risk decisions could be made lower down the organisation. It may also ‘over-process’ things because of fears about legal risks.
So by developing easier routes to solutions and the safer paths to the business outcomes, the in-house lawyer can help the organisation to get things right ‘by design’. These are real innovations that the organisation will value.
Peter Judge, was former executive director of legal and procurement at the Regional Development Agency for the north-east of England