A diverse business group closing a deal in the office

I debate the editor of my search firm’s newsletter quite a bit over the following three words:  lawyer, attorney and counselor. For no logical reason, I’m not a big fan of the word lawyer. In my mind, I picture billboard signs and ambulance chasers. Attorney feels more corporate to me, and so I lean on that one heavily in my writing. I like the idea of counselor, but it comes across as hokey or ambiguous whenever I attempt to actually use it.

Whatever word we use to describe what you do for a living, however, here is what nonlawyer clients tend to hear: NO. At many companies, the prevailing view of the law department is still a hybrid of traffic cop and bureaucrat.

At the rank and file level, law departments are often experienced as either a “cc” on an email or a painful trip to the principal’s office. Two reasons: In-house counsel do, at times, have to play a buck stops here role on what a company can and cannot do (hello, FCPA compliance). But more often, it’s because the legal mindset is “No, But.”

From law school to law firm, most of us were taught to question and persuade. Even in-house counsel usually come to a problem with the following mindset: “No, but” let me help you figure out a way to accomplish the business goal. Most corporate counsel think they are doing an exceptional job when they craft an effective “but” that moves a project forward.

I proffer a New Year’s suggestion for in-house counsel in 2019: Give “Yes, And” a try. It’s the increasingly popular backbone concept from improvisation classes and it’s simple. Adapt a mindset of agreement. (Disclosure: I credit improv for changing my life years ago. I went from argumentative control freak to good listener and a happier person.) In improv, even the most foolish and least funny ideas are explored for a moment in time to see where they might lead. Sometimes the tire gets kicked, everyone yawns and the scene ends. But on occasion, comic gold is created. Either way, the potential is explored.

When your clients include you in strategy or business development meetings (and they should, more on that in a moment), do not think of yourself as a lawyer. First and foremost, you are a businessperson who shares the same objective as everyone else in that room. So that when a new product or concept or system is proposed, you can collaborate as follows: “Yes.”  “And,” let me figure out the best way to support it from a legal standpoint.

You are not outside counsel or a law professor or a cog in a corporate wheel. You are a businessperson. That is likely what drew you to going in-house in the first place. I wish I could replace whatever title is on your business card and insert that one instead. Resist the temptation to play lawyer right away. Make it clear to your clients that your role is to help, collaborate and even add your ideas on how to grow or improve the business. When they really see and believe that, you will get access to meetings and conversations that will make you more effective and visible. The goal is to make sure no one is sitting there asking, “Why is the lawyer in the room?”

Mike Evers recruits attorneys for corporate legal departments throughout the United States.  Visit www.everslegal.com. His firm also offers experienced in-house counsel to companies on an adjunct basis.