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People Buy Differences, Not Similarities: How to Show Your Legal Team’s Value to the C-suite

In the context of buying a house, everyone knows the rule that what matters most is location, location, location. When investing in legal teams, our rule is that people buy differences not similarities.

Our general counsel experience taught us that a legal department that differentiates itself is key to demonstrating value to the CEO and the other business executives who are buying legal services. Demonstrating value has always been important, but it will be even more so as businesses and their top lawyers grapple with the challenges and opportunities presented in an increasingly complex and evolving global environment. Here are a few strategies to help your department stand out to your C-suite.  

1. Keep your head up  

When explaining their work to a CEO or other business executives, many lawyers may be tempted to rattle off results on the department’s key operating indicators (e.g., number of contracts reviewed or cases on your docket). This response likely conveys a message that the lawyers are busy with their heads down. 

But CEOs prefer company lawyers to have their heads up, so they can see where the business is headed and “look around corners” to anticipate and proactively avoid problems. Add differentiated value by knowing the business and where it is headed — and keep your head up. 

2. Be a firefighter  

Firefighters are heroes because they run to the danger to stop its destruction. Company lawyers should do the same thing, especially during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. When there is a crisis, many people become frightened and run away. The most effective lawyers have an instinct to run to the fire, then calmly guide the client safely away from the smoke and to fresh air.  

3. Do not hug the trunk  

Many lawyers like to hug the tree trunk tightly and may be afraid to take a few steps out on the limb. It may appear to be the safe and easiest path forward, but it does nothing to create value and support business growth. The obvious problem is every business initiative carries risk.  

You should evaluate the risk, but then you need to balance the risk and get comfortable taking a few steps on the limb with your business partner. Will the limb sustain you? Most of the time it will. Do it carefully and thoughtfully but try it.  

4. Be doctor yes  

Company lawyers need a strong constitution, but they should say “no” 99 percent less frequently. Very rarely does a CEO say, “Let’s fire everyone over 40 years of age.” It would be equally unusual for a marketing department, for example, to profess that it wants to construct an advertising campaign that intentionally deceives the customer. Saying “no” to these far-fetched examples obviously would be appropriate.  

More realistic, however, are the situations where a leader wants to do something more nuanced and closer to a line. It is easy here for a lawyer to see a risk and say no. But the best lawyers will find a way to say yes, and at the same time address the risk by proposing a slightly different route to the destination. CEOs care most about reaching the intended destination and it is your job to get them there.

5. Walk upstream 

In the parable of the babies in the river, crying babies are floating downstream and several men jump in to rescue them. After a few minutes, one man gets out of the river and starts to walk upstream. When one of the men in the river asked why he was leaving, he said, “You save as many babies as you can, I am going to walk upstream and find out who is throwing babies in the river.” The lesson here is that lawyers trying to create value need to find the root cause of the problem and not simply identify and treat the symptom. Walk upstream, always.  

6. Communicate clearly and concisely  

Clear and concise communication is a must. And the good news is that many lawyers have set a low bar. Good lawyers know the law and its application to an issue. Great lawyers know how to explain it, along with a solution, in a meaningful, impactful way. The way in which information is delivered can sometimes hold greater value than the content itself. This is an important concept to grasp when dealing with CEOs and other business leaders. 

A mentor once explained that a great lawyer should have three versions of any presentation for a meeting: 30-second version, three-minute version, and 30-minute version. This is because you never know how much time you may have once the meeting begins. And trust us, it is not easy to do the 30-second- or three-minute version. It takes time and thoughtful preparation. This lesson touches a quote from US President Woodrow Wilson: “If I am to speak for 10 minutes, I need a week of preparation. If for an hour, I am ready now.”  

7. Propose practical solutions, not perfect ones 

We attended a privacy seminar years ago. The presenter asked those in the audience who worked for banks, airlines, or retailers to raise their hand. She said they needed to make an “A” on privacy.  

She then asked those in the audience who worked for companies with little exposure and exchange of personal customer information to raise their hand. She said they only need to make a “C” on privacy. Most lawyers propose the perfect solution (and often most expensive) every time. We think the value-added lawyers know when a “C” is perfectly OK.  

8. Adopt the correction of errors approach  

A wise person once shared an important lesson about raising children: “Don’t forget to pat your child on the back.” Sometimes, the pat might be to correct them or show them the right path, but don’t forget the pats to say “job well done.”  

This same principle rings true in the corporate world. For example, after a significant business event (e.g., a transaction, resolution of a class action lawsuit, or a crisis) you can encourage a lawyer to initiate a “correction of errors” meeting. You may recommend limiting attendance to one senior representative from each department that contributed to the underlying event.  

Most importantly, everyone should leave their stripes at the door, and the lawyer can facilitate a candid discussion (avoiding ad hominem attacks) about what went right, what went wrong, who excelled or fell short, and what needs improvement. If the general counsel introduces this approach to the organization and leads the meeting professionally, they will experience two positive outcomes: (1) the organization will have a finely-tuned playbook the next time you face the same event, and (2) they will be viewed as a leader (and not just a lawyer) who adds value.  

9. A little advertising never hurts  

The goal is to convince the CEO and business leaders to buy your product. Just as making a product famous requires advertising, you too must peddle your product. For the most part, your team’s accomplishments go unnoticed because those in the C-suite do not know of them. The solution is simple: Share the good news.  

Periodically (but no more than quarterly) ask your team members to share what they did for the benefit of the business. As the general counsel, pare down the list and share the “glory memo” with the executive team, making sure to tie it to business objectives and give particular praise to key contributors (legal and non-legal alike).  

Parting thoughts 

Strive to demonstrate value by being a little different from the typical lawyer. CEOs will take notice and will be more eager to buy from you going forward.

About the Authors

Brian MaciakBrian A. Maciak is executive vice president, general counsel, secretary, and chief compliance officer at TBC Corporation.

Dan SandersDaniel S. Sanders, Jr. is partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Previously, he was vice president, general counsel, secretary, and chief compliance officer at Michelin North America, Inc.

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