Best Practices: Blending Business and Law
Walt Holmes joined Interstate Battery System of America Inc. in 1995, and since then he has taken on a number of business roles as he has risen through the ranks to become senior vice president and chief legal officer.
Texas Lawyer reporter Thomas Phillips emailed Holmes some questions about best practices. His answers are below, edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: What do you see as the most important legal role you play for Interstate Batteries?
Walt Holmes: It is essential that any one of us performing the legal functions within Interstate Batteries get into the business to understand the business drivers for any issue presented. The value we can deliver for the organization isn't in saying "don't do that" but in crafting solutions that meet the business need while mitigating risks associated with the initiatives/issues.
TL: What are some things about working in-house you didn't know when you worked for a firm?
Holmes: I think there are several. Very few folks are really impressed with legal knowledge. In fact, that legal knowledge can be a barrier to working alongside folks. The challenge is . . .having the legal knowledge (which is essential) but being able to work with the people who are truly driving the business success. I think I had a bit of an over-inflated view of what my role was and needed to be when I first started. Also, there is a lot of scrutiny that happens: How is "this lawyer" going to work with everyone? How responsive will "this lawyer" be? Although those questions will occasionally be verbalized, they are happening internally all the time.
TL: If you ever went back to being outside counsel, what would you do differently?
Holmes: I know, if I was working with corporate clients, I would be much more proactive in understanding the business issues. I would want to know the "business owners' " view of the situation and what potential outcomes the business owners believed existed. I would take all of the information and prepare a plan AND budget to make sure we all were on the same page in addressing the issue at hand.
TL: What's some good advice for how general counsel can see the bigger picture of a company's business, and not just legal issues?
Holmes: Go spend some time with the people that drive the success (or potential failure) of the business! Understand the business! Think of ways you can improve the business after you have a better understanding of all of its facets.