Busy general counsel and their teams run into knowledge gaps all the time. The variety of their responsibilities and the intense pace of change in business means you’re often playing whack-a-mole with new tasks and challenges.
How does the war in Ukraine affect our contracts in Europe? How do we take advantage of new money from government programs? How can we raise our prices to respond to inflation within the terms of our current contracts? How can we structure this acquisition to our greatest advantage? How do new ESG regulations line up with our current employment practice? Can we force people to return to the office? Can we be sued for not providing ergonomic workstations for home offices?
The list goes on, and so often it can leave you and your team feeling like there’s no end to what you don’t know.
That’s why it helps to think of yourselves as lifelong learners and legal generalists. Instead of feeling like you have to “fake it ‘till you make it,” find ways to build competence and authority as you go. These three suggestions can help you stay on your feet when the business is putting you on the spot.
Remember, it’s not just about the law anymore
Take steps to be seen as a business partner and colleague instead of as solely a legal expert. General counsel like you have worked hard to earn a seat at the leadership table. Most aren’t waiting to be consulted on the legal implications of a new initiative or managing litigation. They are in early-stage conversations about new business lines, strategies, and markets. They are advising on talent strategies and consulting on innovative ways to go to market.
More and more, general counsel wears a commercial hat. And they are building peer relationships across the business as they become a partner in moving the business forward. As we note in the white paper Thriving on the spot, “You need to appreciate the needs of the product development and marketing departments — and sync with broader business objectives — while mitigating risk as far as possible. In a situation like this, it may be that general counsel need to become comfortable with a moderate litigation risk.”
Partnering across the whole business and getting deeply invested in the way your company makes money will help you provide more effective and reasonable legal counsel.
It will also create some space for you to carefully consider new issues proactively rather than having to take crash courses every time a new challenge lands on your desk.
Find resources that close the knowledge gap
The business expects you and your team to know a lot about a lot and that can leave you feeling like you don’t know what you don’t know – like every day brings a new and unfamiliar knot to untangle. Prepare for the unknown with resources that can help you fill any legal knowledge gap quickly.
One option is to rely heavily on your outside counsel. Keep track of which firms help you with specific niche matters and call on them when you bump into something new. This is especially useful with bet-the-company matters, but it can be expensive for operational challenges. You can also try to develop deep expertise across your in-house team. Collaboration between colleagues is an excellent way to serve the business effectively, and the team may appreciate the opportunity to go deep into a specific area of law. This is more realistic when you have a large legal team but could be challenging if the team is small and scrappy.
Look for research and know-how tools, like Thomson Reuters Practical Law, that can help you go deep into a new area of law quickly. Relying on published guidance from trusted experts can help you get a solid start on a challenging or complex unfamiliar type of matter. With your commitment to learning, you can use this as a starting point for further study and practice, or to have a more informed conversation if you do decide to bring in outside counsel.
Embrace transparency and authenticity
Remember that it’s impossible for you to know everything about every matter of law. Deep down, your business colleagues know that. They may have come to rely on you as an authority, and often that means their first expectation is that they can lob a crisis at you and get an immediate answer. You can model humility by taking a deep breath and saying you don’t know. Because, of course, you know how to find the answer.
Condition your colleagues to see you as someone who can figure out a path forward through any legal question and as someone who cares about the business, rather than as a living, breathing encyclopedia of legal knowledge. You’re not a robot. When you communicate that you need to figure out how to troubleshoot, you’ll start to see shifts in the overall climate of the organization. It also reinforces the effort you’re making to build peer relationships within the business.
Every legal professional feels put on the spot regularly. Remind yourself and your team that they can handle it.
You have taken steps to reduce emergency requests by working proactively with your business colleagues. You have built a collection of resources that can help you get started on new legal issues. And you have given yourself permission to say “I don’t know, but I can find out.”
With all this worked out, you are equipped to close any legal knowledge gap you encounter.
Thomson Reuters® Practical Law comes complete with expert how-to guidance and templates to help jumpstart a wide range of matters. Learn how Practical Law can help you react quickly and effectively as new challenges come your way.