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Teaming up with Other Departments: A Conversation with Tammy Fanning and Alan Fishel

W hen there's a company crisis, employees typically turn to in-house counsel first. But when there's a project that requires collaboration, they're sometimes the last ones asked to participate. Often seen as adding obstacles, lawyers at times have difficulty convincing their colleagues that they add value to a project.

These stigmas won't disappear overnight. But with the right steps, they'll eventually subside, as the authors of "Five Secrets to Successfully Negotiating with … Your Own Side" discuss in their ACC Docket cover story. We spoke with Alan Fishel and Tammy Fanning, two of the article's three authors (Danda Zhao was unavailable for the interview), on how lawyers can break down silos.

The collaboration experts — as writers and colleagues — talked about the importance of building rapport, compromising, and holding trainings when teaming up with other departments. Below is the conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

ACC: How can in-house counsel learn to find solutions to their colleagues' ideas instead of saying no?

Tammy Fanning: In my experience, I do not think we are viewed as the "department of no," but rather an extra layer of complication or an obstacle to achieve their goal. I fully appreciate and understand that perspective and believe you have to put your focus on identifying solutions you can give to the business.

I have always tried to be an in-house lawyer who provides my client with options and recommendations, and then allow them the opportunity to make the right decision. When I am asked, "Can we do this?" I typically try to respond, "We can do that, but here are the risks in doing that." When the business feels engaged and the owner of their decisions, in my experience, they have come to the right decision and correct solution 100 percent of the time. I think the key is being a business partner and not a lawyer who simply tells them "yes" or "no."

[Related: Measure Your Impact: 8 KPIs for In-house Teams]

Alan Fishel: I agree with Tammy. In these instances, the client is often giving you two related pieces of information: the result they want and the path they want to take to get there. As the attorney, you should first analyze whether the proposed path and result are doable from a practical, regulatory, and risk standpoint. If so, great. If not, the next question is "Can you reach the result the client wants, but by taking a different path?" If so, the client will most likely be pleased and you just need to explain to him or her why a different path is the better, safer, or more efficient way to go.

On the other hand, if the result itself is not something that can be achieved without an unacceptable amount of risk, the question then becomes "Can we get to a similar result, without undue risk, that has most, if not all, of the same benefits, as the client's proposed result?" These second and third stages are where you often see excellent in-house counsel use their creativity to reach results that work for both the client and the legal team.

When the business feels engaged and the owner of their decisions, in my experience, they have come to the right decision and correct solution 100 percent of the time.
— Tammy Fanning, Global Head of Law — Product Liability/Product Integrity, Continental

ACC: What is the best way that an in-house counsel can build rapport with their colleagues from other departments?

Tammy Fanning: Although it is difficult in a large global company, I do think it is important to have face-to-face communications, when you can. I have found that the business views you differently when they can put a face to the name and you are no longer just a lawyer with whom they only talk on the phone. They're far more inclined to seek your support and integrate you into the business and their decision-making process if you've taken the time to sit in the room with them and understand what's happening and how the decisions are going to impact their business.

I think this is particularly important from the product safety side because you're often in the midst of a very challenging situation and emotions can run a bit high. I consistently found that showing the business I am here, I am 100 percent engaged and available to get through this goes much farther than the traditional email or phone call. The business appreciates it enormously if you can find time for face-to-face meetings.

Alan Fishel: And, Tammy, you do a lot since you travel all the time.

Tammy Fanning: It does put a burden on you. And there's the time and a cost constraint. But in the end, I believe you gain efficiencies by being in the same room with the business to get through the topic.

ACC: Great. And what do you think, Alan?

Alan Fishel: I really agree with Tammy on that. Having face-to-face conversations is absolutely part of building rapport. A huge part of it. Another part is having them feel like you're on their side. This is not a push and pull. This is a "we're working with you, we both are on the same team." I see Tammy take this approach all the time.

The next thing is for them to feel like you are trying to come up with solutions with them — not just for them, but with them. Once again, you're all part of the same team. In addition, I think it's really important that they find you pleasant to work with. If you're someone who they like, that makes a huge difference, and it also makes it far more likely they will call you when they should. You also need to talk to them in a manner that is both clear and interesting. If they don't understand what you are saying, or if they are frequently looking at their phones or computers when you are saying it, you simply can't accomplish what you need to get done.

[Related: Becoming a Better Leader: How to Overcome the Overly "Lawyer" Personality]

After that, it's about respect. OK, they like you. They think you're interesting. They think you're on their side. But do they think you're good? For that, one obvious but important thing to do is to use all your experience to make sure you're raising ideas, setting forth facts, and providing analysis that is adding value to the whole group. When they see you are engaged and adding value, they will almost invariably view you as an asset to their team. On a related note, I think one of the big things to do — and I know, Tammy, you do a lot of this — is provide training for the clients, whether informally, formally, or both.

Training is the ultimate win-win-win because clients get to see how strong a lawyer you are, how important it is what you do, and at the same time they often become more engaged in their interactions with you because they then have a better understanding of the issues involved. It is the rare person who wishes to be engaged in something that they know nothing about. Make them a little brighter in your world, and they may become a lot smarter in it as well because they will now have the confidence and desire to learn more. But even if they don't start trying to go beyond what you taught them in training, it's OK. Even if they know just a little, it can help you a lot.

ACC: What kind of training specifically would you want the business team to work on with the legal team?

Tammy Fanning: For my group, we provide awareness training so that our people understand product liability, product safety, and regulatory compliance and how these topics are crucial to Continental.

I think Alan's right, it's important to raise awareness, and it's a great opportunity for the business to put a face with the issues. Then they do feel more comfortable reaching out and asking for assistance when they see the expertise and support you bring to the topics.

Alan Fishel: When I say train them, they're never going to know anything close to what Tammy knows or any other excellent lawyer knows. But when you train them, not only do you build camaraderie and engagement, and not only do you give them a sense of what you do and how well you do it, but after they receive the training what you do doesn't feel like it's just some type of Rubik's Cube to them. In addition, after the proper training, they often don't take the mistaken first step on matters that lead to defensiveness when you tell them we have to change course. A lot of clients I have trained have later told me that they feel like de facto lawyers, and they really like that feeling. It is empowering to them, and it is helpful to you.

My view is that any lawyers who say they don't have time for training are making a mistake because training can save time and prevent a lot of heartache. If attorneys don't feel like they know enough about how to do the proper training for their clients — Tammy, I'm not going to speak for you — but I'm personally more than happy to talk to anybody for free about how to approach training and the options you may want to consider. The lawyers who conduct training who have spoken to me about it have always expressed great satisfaction with what the training has led to with respect to their relationship with their clients as well as client engagement.

The key is to make the initial training limited in scope, informative, interactive, and fun. When you do it right, the next time you ask if they want a little more training, I found that the answer is almost always the same — yes.
— Alan Fishel, Communications and Technology Practice Leader, Arent Fox

For lawyers who don't provide the necessary training for their clients, there are usually two justifications I hear, in addition to being too busy. The first is: "I'm never going to be able to teach them everything I know." The second is that the clients are not interested in training: "They don't care about law. They don't care about any of this."

With respect to the first one, "I'll never teach them everything I know," that's fine. That's not the goal. The objective isn't to try to get them to where you are with your years and years of experience. Understanding even just a little bit more about what you do and how they need to look at things with respect to legal matters can really help clients, and in turn, help you.

The second justification, "When I ask them if they want to do training, they say no," is also not a good reason to forgo training. Clients who say no to training usually do so because they know very little about the law and don't believe anything you can tell them is relevant to them. The key is to make the initial training limited in scope, informative, interactive, and fun. When you do it right, the next time you ask if they want a little more training, I found that the answer is almost always the same — yes.

ACC: You were talking about teams earlier. When it comes to cooperating with these other teams, how do you effectively delegate across departments to ensure that no one says, "I didn't know that was my responsibility"?

Tammy Fanning: I'm happy to jump on this because this was an issue for our global law department. We grew very quickly over the years. After several acquisitions and mergers, we found ourselves in a place where we had some issues with delineation of responsibilities. We went through a year-long reorganization, and it was in no small part to fix this. Now we have five global expert teams and more clearly defined regional areas. We actually have a document that we published that addresses which teams handle which topics so we can provide guidance to the law department members, as well as the business, so they know who to go to.

How do we delegate that work? Every team has a leader. We have an agreement amongst all of the leaders that we routinely communicate when it comes to work responsibilities in order to make sure we understand which team is handling that topic. Often times, there's more than one team. For example, my team handles product safety issues that also typically end up with commercial issues. So, we are very open in our communication and understanding about which team is handling which parts of the topic so that the ball doesn't get dropped.

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I think that our new system is working. We still have glitches, and there are still times where things aren't entirely clear. But I do think it's a question of leadership, and the team leaders are responsible for making sure that our clients understand who they can go to, that they get a very quick response, and making sure that their respective teams are getting the work finished in a timely manner.

Alan Fishel: Tammy is phenomenal at this. Being organized is so important. Make sure you stay organized so that you know who is supposed to do what and then put things in writing where necessary, including the time period by which something will get done. And I've had a number of times in my career and, Tammy, I'm sure you have too, where they say, "I don't remember agreeing to do that." And I say, "I'll re-forward you the email where you agreed to it." That is so much better than, "Oh no, that is what you said to me on that one call." Re-forwarding the email changes everything. Then they just do it.

ACC: What is the most important thing for in-house counsel to keep in mind when communicating and cooperating with their colleagues, and why?

Alan Fishel: First, put yourself in their shoes. When you put yourself in their shoes, you will not just hear what their concerns are, but you will likely understand why they have those concerns, and that will put you in the best position to address them.

Second, always make it clear that we're on the same side here. This isn't us pushing against you. This is just all of us trying to help the company achieve the same goals. When they feel they've got a teammate and when they feel like they have a listener, and in fact someone who's not only listening to them but is also understanding how they're perceiving it, you're a long way toward having a great relationship with them.

Having said all that, it is important that you keep in mind the proper balance. If the client wants the company to take unacceptable risks, you should push back as any good teammate would do, but you should do it in a respectful and constructive manner. The most effective in-house counsel are the ones who clients still view them as their teammates even when the counsel is pushing back.

Tammy Fanning: I was going to say my consistent message always is: I am here to help. That is my job. My job is to assist, provide guidance and recommendations, and get the business unit through the issue that they're faced with. I want the business to understand that me and my team, we are available to them when they need us.

And I think, particularly again in my area, often they just want to know that there is that assistance to guide them through the topic. If you make the business understand that you are an integral part of the decision-making and there to support them through it, I think they recognize the value that the law department brings in those circumstances.

Alan Fishel:
One of the reasons I asked Tammy to be involved in writing this article is because of her skillset in doing just those sort of things. And it does make a huge difference.

[M]y consistent message always is: I am here to help. That is my job. My job is to assist, provide guidance and recommendations, and get the business unit through the issue that they're faced with.
— Tammy Fanning, Global Head of Law — Product Liability/Product Integrity, Continental

ACC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Alan Fishel: I'd like to add three things. First, it greatly helps attorneys in their relationship with clients to focus more on facts than conclusions. So, when someone comes up to me and says, "Hey, you know we need to do X," and I know that idea is not going to work the first thing I say isn't, "No, you can't do it." It's, "Hey, the way the law is set up here is … " You know, you sort of lay it out fact, after fact, after fact in a nice way. Because what can frustrate clients is when attorneys give them bald conclusions and the clients don't know if those conclusions are right. You need to give them the facts in a logical and coherent order. Having said that, you also need to, whenever possible, give them alternatives. When you do that you're usually no longer viewed as the "voice of no" even when you can't go along with what they want to do, but instead you become the "voice of options."

[Related: Tips & Insights: Charting a More Collaborative Course]

Second, don't ever forget, as the article lays out in the section entitled "Recognize your specific value to the organization," all that you bring to the table.  Always remembering the wide variety of ways in which you add value can greatly help you in your interactions with clients and in your confidence level while interacting with them.

Finally, having a great relationship with your clients not only makes you a far more effective and successful attorney, but it can also make you a far happier one. It is so much easier dealing with people on a daily basis who respect, trust and like you than it is if the opposite is true. And in the vast majority of instances, whether that occurs with most clients is more dependent on what you do than it is on anything else.

About the ACC Docket cover story authors

Tammy FanningTammy Fanning is global head of law — product liability/product integrity at Continental.

Alan FishelAlan Fishel leads Arent Fox’s communications and technology group. He does regulatory and transactional work, and he also conducts training for clients’ legal and business teams.

About the Author

Karmen Fox is the web content editor of ACC Docket.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.