When I was a kid there was a Saturday morning cartoon show called Sealab 2020. I remember thinking that was a long, long way off and wondering how old I would be when 2020 rolled around – – and whether by then there would really be a giant lab on the bottom of the sea with 250 oceanauts fighting sea monsters and battling pollution. But, here we are; it’s 2020! I am officially old(ish) and, sadly, sea monsters go un-battled under the ocean (unless you count Wicked Tuna), but pollution on (and in) the high seas runs rampant. Triple bummer. What does this have to do with “Ten Things” you ask? Nothing other than a little nostalgia and the “2020” reference as this is my first post of the New Year. As usual, we’ll start the year with my list of essential issues for in-house lawyers to pay attention to over the coming months. When I was general counsel, I started every year thinking about the “big picture” and what risks (good or bad) might be coming down the pike that I needed to be aware of as an in-house lawyer. It’s not an easy task as there is so much “out there” that can have an impact on your company and legal department. Still, it’s better to try to anticipate some than to ignore all. So, once again, I have sat down, read a lot, and thought hard about different issues that will likely have some substantial impact – positive or negative – on in-house lawyers and for which a little bit of preparation or pro-active attention can make you a hero vs. someone caught flat-footed. With the usual caveat that I have no crystal ball showing me what’s important, here my “Ten Things” 2020 edition of essential issues for in-house counsel:
I recently heard from someone I worked with when I was General Counsel of Travelocity. She was on the business side and worked on a lot of contracts. She reached out because she remembered an article I had written and posted on the legal department intranet site about “how to read contracts.” It was something I wrote for the business so they would be better prepared to work with my team on contracts. Apparently, she still used it over ten years later! But, she had lost her only copy and wanted to share it with some of her team at her new company so she could coach them up. She reached out to ask me if I still had a copy that I could share with her. I did and sent it over to her. Now she is teaching a new generation of her sales team how to read contracts. Reading back through it, however, got me thinking about the fact that not all in-house lawyers have a good understanding of how to read a contract – though we would all hate to admit it. It is not a skill they teach in law school (or least didn’t when I was there, i.e., I never saw an actual contract until I started working at a law firm). Instead, law schools focus more on contract theory and stuff like that. Which is all well and good until you’re faced with your first 50-page agreement and realize all that theory isn’t going to help you much as you start to wade through something that reads like a map written in ancient Greek.
I have been struggling to write this post about KPIs. It’s taken way longer than it should have – with several starts and stops. First, should it be KPI or KPIs? Just like the debate over RBI and RBIs in baseball, passions run hot on this point. I think “KPIs” sounds better so I’m going with that. Second – and slightly more important than the KPI/KPIs controversy – KPIs don’t work particularly well for in-house legal departments. Actually, I had this eureka moment a long time ago when I was first asked as General Counsel to provide “SMART” objectives for the legal department for an upcoming calendar year. I literally had no clue what they (HR) were talking about. And when I asked them for some examples, it was clear they had no clue either – at least when it came to developing SMART objectives for the legal department. For other parts of the business, SMART objectives seemed obvious and worked great. For legal, not so much. But, I (and my team) eventually figured it out and designed goals that were a little squishy – “SMART-ish” – but to which no one objected. You can see some examples of this in an older post titled “Setting Goals for the Legal Department.”
A long time ago, most in-house legal departments were based in one location (or, at worst, one country). Over the past twenty years, this dynamic has dramatically changed for many companies. While a majority of smaller company legal departments still operate out of one location, not all do. Moreover, many medium and large companies have their in-house lawyers located in multiple offices, including both domestically and internationally. While definitely different than when I started in-house, I believe it is also better. Much better. Just like diversity in the workplace improves the company’s products and services, a legal department with members located in different places brings together multiple viewpoints, fresh legal analysis, different biases, and new work styles.
While this melting pot of differences makes things better over the long run, there are numerous challenges to managing such a group and bringing all of these differences together a way that functions smoothly. How do you lead across multiple countries and multiple time zones? How do you create unity in a team that rarely – if ever – sees each other in person? How do you ensure everyone feels engaged and that their contributions are valued when they sit several thousand miles away from the home office? All of these are tough things to work through, but all are solvable if you are willing to commit to doing the work necessary to bridge the gaps. In my current role, I have attorneys in four cities in the USA but we are adding attorneys in London and Tokyo this year. So, I will soon be faced dealing with the challenge of managing across countries. Fortunately, I have managed teams like this before. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I know it can be done. This edition of “Ten Things” discusses the things you need to do to manage a dispersed legal department:
This will be my last post of 2017. The year has certainly flown by! Thank you all once again for continuing to read the blog (going on four years now!), for sharing it with your friends and colleagues, and for your great notes and suggestions. I wanted to end the year with a discussion about an issue I think is of critical importance to any in-house Legal Department: getting rid of the perception of Legal as the place where deals go to die. Almost all in-house lawyers have heard this joke and almost all agree that it is generally an unfair label. That said, I have been doing this a long time and I have had many conversations with folks on the business side of the house and sometimes the concerns that they raise about Legal “blocking” deals are valid. Let’s face it, there are times when the Legal Department stumbles on this front. Sometimes we even fall on our faces. I have stumbled, fallen, and crashed to earth too many times to count. And, no matter how hard I try, I will stumble again. But, I always try to learn something from each lesson. Most importantly, I try to remind myself that I and the Legal Department are here to serve the business. As in-house lawyers, we have two goals: value creation (“Yes”) and limiting value destruction (“No”). The hard part is balancing these two goals, especially when it comes to things the business really wants to do or contracts they want to sign. A good friend of mine once told me that the hardest negotiation you will have as an in-house lawyer is usually internal. Over time, however, I have developed some guidelines that help me get to “Yes” far more than I get to “No.” This edition of “Ten Things” will share my list of things you can do to make Legal the Department of Yes.
More and more employers are affording their employees the ability to work from home or “remotely” as it is sometimes called. Studies show pretty convincingly that not only does the flexibility to work from home increase employee productivity and morale, it also heightens the company’s ability to attract and retain key talent. It can also save the company money in terms of reduced office space needs and other costs such as parking, utilities, etc. While working from home is growing, it is not growing as quickly at in-house legal departments. A lot of that has to do with one primary concern: “If I cannot see them, how do I know they are really working?” There are other issues, such as meetings, client interaction, department interaction, and so forth but the number one reason for not making work-from-home (“WFH”) an option for in-house lawyers boils down to trust.
As a former General Counsel I will be first to raise my hand and say that I was very reluctant when we first started allowing our in-house lawyers to work from home up to two days a week. It just felt “off” to me but I made a decision to put my reservations aside and focus on coming up with a plan that would either work out to the benefit of both the company and the employee, or would prove that WFH wasn’t really for us. I can report that it absolutely worked out fine for us both in terms of enhanced productivity and in terms of having a materially different “benefit” that made working in our legal department even more attractive, especially with respect to keeping existing talent and attracting new talent. That’s not to say that it was without bumps, we had them. And for some folks we needed to alter or revoke the privilege as it just didn’t work out in those cases. This edition of Ten Things tackles the question of whether work from home can work for your legal department and the things you need to do to ensure that any WFH policy works for everyone. While I am focusing on WFH, these same rules apply generally for managers and employees working a remote offices, i.e., offices away from headquarters.
As I mentioned in my last post (January 8), over the next few weeks I will dive deeper into some of the sample department “goals” I set out in that article. Today I will focus on this goal: “Build and retain extraordinary team with exceptional people.” I always put my “people goal” first because I truly believe that nothing gets done in legal unless you have top talent that is motivated and happy in their jobs. How do you keep and reward people so they stick around? The obvious answer is to pay them well, have a good performance bonus program in place, and let them share in equity plans. The problem is, for many reasons, it usually is not fully in your control to make any of these three things happen. For purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you are doing what you can for your team around salary, bonuses and equity and, instead, focus on some low-cost ways you can reward/recognize employees.
A common complaint you will hear as in-house counsel is “Why does it take so long for you guys to review my contract?” (Second only to “Why are our contracts so long?”) The answer, as you know, is complicated. Legal is a limited resource, typically a small team that reviews hundreds and possibly thousands of contracts in any given year. While a lot of contracts are fairly routine, many involve complicated provisions or transactions with millions of dollars on the line. Sometimes you have to create a contract from scratch, meaning you do not have a form or something to easily model from. Frequently, things like litigation or large M&A deals take up substantial amounts of lawyer time — time that cannot be spent on contracts. Finally, legal will generally prioritize contracts based on the strategic objectives of the business. Deals that better support the strategy/objectives get more attention more quickly.
As we head into the holiday season, this is the perfect time to give your anti-bribery program a health check. For those in the U.S., we tend to focus on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when thinking about anti-bribery laws. However, if you work for a company that operates globally, you know that many countries have anti-bribery laws and you need to be aware of those requirements as well. Enforcement of the FCPA/anti-bribery laws is not going away. In fact, in my opinion, it will get even more intense over the next few years. Given the level of fines and the reputational risk at stake, it’s important to ensure you are taking the right steps to give your employees the tools they need to stay on the right side of the line. At my prior company, we typically used the advent of the holiday season as the time to take a number of steps relating to FCPA/anti-bribery compliance. Below are ten things you can do now to help ensure compliance with anti-bribery laws. In key spots, I have included links to articles or websites with additional information you might find helpful.
Whether you are new to the in-house department or a long-term veteran, the General Counsel or just a basic contract lawyer, there are a number of things that can help make you more successful in your career. I have distilled a lot of hard-learned lessons into ten key tips. These are not exhaustive and there are always more, but these are the ten things I consistently taught to my teams over the years.