It is no secret that our own George Washington and France’s Marquis de Lafayette were dear friends. One of the many reasons for this friendship is attributed to Lafayette’s introducing himself to Washington by saying, unlike other French leaders before him, “I am here to learn, not teach.” In this spirit, we are not writing this article to teach anything. Our intent is simply to share a technique we used in recent years to help us communicate and perform. We found it easy and effective. Our hope is that you might find something useful in it, take it, improve upon it and return it in a forum, like this or elsewhere, so that we all continue to learn.
A quotation credited to Michelangelo is, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim so high that we miss it, but in setting our aim so low that we reach it.”
Here’s a simple challenge: ask three lawyers with whom you work to describe the core of their jobs—what they are responsible to accomplish. Whether in-house or private practice, you might be surprised to learn how inconsistently those around you answer the simple question: what is expected? Associates at a private law firm might quote billable or collection goals, while in-house counsel might regurgitate a legal department quality statement or slogan.
Worse yet, you may get a blank stare.
An easy, practical way to work well as a team is to set clear expectations. This is true for real people, and even for lawyers.
In Michelin’s legal department, the expectations we set for the internal staff were simple individually but lofty in the collective. After a few revisions and several test runs, we ended up with the following list:
- Excellent results
- Communicate clearly and often
- Know the business
- Look outside
Realizing that lawyers are always debating and that more specificity is better than less, we went a step further and defined each one in the context of a variety of practice areas:
Outputs that move the business forward are actually realized (as distinguished from effort); resources are aligned to high risk/strategic areas; problems/risks are identified and corrected before impact (proactive vs. reactive).
- Deals are closed / Patents are filed
- Trials and motions are won
- Contracts are signed (on our terms)
- Risk is defined, audited and corrected
- Process improvements are implemented and routinely tested
Visible, positive action to further department and company interests; active participation and interest in the work of your colleagues.
- Participative attendance at scheduled meetings
- “Tension” in the system—differing viewpoints are offered and debated
- New practices/improvements/recommendations are suggested outside your area of direct responsibility
Communicate Clearly and Often
Information flows vertically and horizontally; it is clear, concise and regularized; it is effective – audience leaves with an understanding of important points; the “message” is intentional; communications are visible and tangible—documented and shared with other stakeholders.
- Publication of a standard report on an established schedule
- Visibility of reporting to your management and your teammates
- High-level information with recommendations offered directly to senior client management
- Recommendations are in writing
- Surprises are avoided
Know the Business
General knowledge of industry and competitors, and solid working knowledge of your clients’ business and goals.
- You keep awareness of industry developments and media
- You know your clients’ products, technology, and problems, as well as their key customers, suppliers, and relationships
- You understand the financial performance of the company and its business units.
An awareness of the legal and business environment and its potential impact on clients; an inclination to ask what other companies and industries are doing, and whether we should consider a similar or different course.
- You are alert to propose risk reductions because you are aware of competitors’ and partners’ legal challenges.
- You benchmark performance, problems, advice, solutions, practices, etc., against industry, competitors and best practices.
- You leverage a network of contacts that permits you to stay informed, and you utilize it to make changes that improve things within the company.
Colleagues consistently view you as someone who contributes to their success and to the success of the department; other departments seek out opportunities to work with you and the legal department because of what it offers.
- You respond timely to the requests of your colleagues.
- You offer to take on work when someone is clearly “under water.”
- Others seek your input, as opposed to working around you.
- You share information and expertise freely.
At the end of each year, we self-assessed using color codes: green for excellent, yellow for acceptable, orange for needs improvement, and red for not good. Here is an example for illustrative purposes only:
The feedback from the team was positive. Same from clients. Simple, practical, and clear. Even bonus points because we were the lawyers being simple and clear.
Step 2 was to deploy this system to outside counsel partners. We used the same expectations, but with refined definitions. Here is an example for a firm doing Michelin’s litigation work:
Excellent Results (yellow)
- Trial wins
- Credibility with judges / plaintiff lawyers
- No discovery sanctions
- Substantive local inputs
- Visibility in the local market
- With other Regional Counsel / Discovery Coordinating Counsel
- “Tension” in the system
Communicate Clearly and Often (yellow)
- “Upstream delegation”
- Regular, consistent, disciplined
- Focus on solutions and how they can be applied
- No surprises
Know the Business (orange)
- Tire industry
- Litigation Group
- “Know what people do”
Look Outside (red)
- “Thought Leaders”
- New ideas
Cooperation / team work = less resource
Importantly, and in the spirit of eating our own cooking, we asked each law firm to advise on ways we could improve in meeting their expectations.
The best way to achieve a goal is to set it. The same is true for expectations. Be simple, clear, and direct. And be candid and constructively self-critical in the assessment.
Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz often says, “You live up—or down—to expectations.” We agree.
Dan Sanders is a partner in Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough’s Greenville, S.C., and Atlanta offices, where he practices with both the corporate and litigation groups. He is a former vice-president, general counsel and secretary of Michelin North America Inc.
Valerie P. Williams is Michelin’s vice-president, general counsel and secretary.