What is your value proposition?
Before you go into a job interview or ask for a promotion or a raise, make sure you can answer that question.
In-house lawyers add value in many ways, such as protecting the company from undue contractual risk, ensuring the company adheres to the law and internal policies, and effectively handling litigation. The best in-house lawyers take value to another level by becoming trusted business advisors.
What is a trusted business advisor?
First, we need to distinguish the difference between being a legal advisor from being a business advisor.
By virtue of the fact that you are a lawyer in a legal role, you are a legal advisor. Being a trusted legal advisor means that your internal clients believe that you know the law, and when you give them your legal opinion, they assume you are correct. Being a trusted legal advisor is simply doing your job well.
Being a business advisor requires knowledge and courage. Here's the knowledge you need to have:
1. How the business works:
2. The legal, regulatory and internal policy framework in which the company operates:
The courage comes in when you make recommendations or offer opinions that are more than just legal advice. When the CEO turns to you and asks, "What do you think we should do?", it takes courage to go beyond the legal advisor role and offer business advice. You could be wrong, or you could be telling the CEO something he does not want to hear, but it is in exactly that moment that you distinguish yourself from all other lawyers and enter the realm of business advisor. Of course, to become a trusted business advisor, you need to be right more often than not, and you need to be clear and honest in your communications. Being a yes man (or woman) or pontificating for minutes on end will not win you a place as a trusted business advisor.
If you start to waiver, wondering what you could possibly explain to seasoned business people that they do not already know, remember this – lawyers see the world differently than nonlawyers. Law school teaches us to analyze problems in a different way than business people, and that different perspective is valuable to decision makers.
Why is being a trusted business advisor so important for your career?
The answer can be summed up in two words: engagement and career progression.
Engagement refers to the emotional connection to work. People who are highly engaged perform better, no matter what their role. When you are a trusted business advisor, work is more interesting. You feel that are you part of a team, that your opinion is valued and that you are contributing in a meaningful way. These are all elements of engagement and will often lead to excellent performance that should result in bigger bonuses, promotions and a measure of job security.
Career progression requires that you be recognized as adding value to the organization. Every company is different in terms of how and when they move people up in the ranks, but, if you are recognized as someone who consistently adds value, you are more likely to be promoted or to be kept on during lay-offs than someone who is not. Even if you change companies, the ability to earn the respect of your internal clients as a trusted business advisor will position you well for career growth.
How do you become a trusted business advisor?
Becoming a trusted business advisor is a three-step process – knowledge, relationships and opportunities.
As noted above, you must have detailed knowledge about the business. You can acquire that knowledge from a variety of sources. If you work for a publicly traded company, read the quarterly disclosures, and attend the investor conference calls. If you work for a privately held company, read what the company puts out to the public, and then get to know people in sales and accounting to get their perspective. Ask lots of questions, and listen carefully to the answers.
Relationships based on trust and respect are the next essential component. Most lawyers cultivate those relationships by being good lawyers. When you are working closely with internal clients doing a deal or solving a problem, you have an opportunity to earn that trust and respect. Show them that you are not just a legal expert but that you truly understand their role and what they are trying to achieve.
If you have a strong knowledge base and good relationships, you will be ready to seize the opportunity when it arises. You will be in the room when the team has to solve a difficult problem. Or, you'll be around when an executive needs to make a tough decision. That is when you may hear those deeply satisfying words – "I know you're a lawyer, but I'd like your business advice."
Barrett S. Avigdor, Esq. is Managing Director for Latin America and a member of Major, Lindsey & Africa's In-House Practice Group. Based in the firm's San Diego office, Barrett is a certified executive coach and trainer, and he has worked with attorneys around the world to help them enhance their professional performance and create a life they enjoy by utilizing emotional intelligence and their individual strengths. She is the coauthor of the best-seller What Happy Working Mothers Know (Wiley 2009). Barrett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.