I've recently started a new job and I'm reminded once again that the key to success for an in house lawyer is often not in how well they can evaluate the legal issues. True success lies in the three P's: People, Politics and Priorities. In an ideal world, we'd have genuine, personal connections with everyone we work with, there'd be no power plays or territorial behavior, and our legal priorities would line up perfectly with the business priorities. If that describes your work world – play the lottery, you are that lucky.
For the rest of us, figuring out how to navigate the three P's while maintaining our integrity and professional responsibilities can be challenging. Often the most complicated part of in house practice is not applying archaic legal principles to modern situations, but dealing with the personalities of the people you have to support. Whether it be a VP whose risk profile is completely opposite to yours or a new sales person who thinks he should run the show, managing your relationships with people is critical to your ability to get the business to listen to you when it's important. We all have personalities that we're drawn to or want to avoid. Unfortunately, we have to work with all types.
While it's always best to try to make that genuine connection with people – they'll come to you more often, sooner and with more important matters if they genuinely like you – it's not always possible. For example, I'm not an outdoorsy sports person. When I meet the guys and gals who would rather be running or camping, I don't usually have much in common with them. It's hard to establish a rapport with someone whose interests are so foreign to you. So you fake it a little. I'm never going enjoy spending an afternoon with bugs buzzing around me while I'm too hot or too cold. However I can enjoy the photography they bring back to the office or cheer them on in their next half marathon. Over time a real connection may break through, and if not, at least I'm being likeable if not truly liked.
The more difficult challenge is the internal politics that surround any workplace. Some of it comes from having real relationships with people, but more often it becomes an issue when there's a player who isn't interested in creating real relationships. It doesn't really matter whether that's because they territorial or just ambitious and don't plan on sticking around for too long. With these people you must be 'strategically professional' (a phrase I picked up from a colleague). You're not getting anywhere with these people unless you can be valuable to them. For these relationships you are always 'on' proving where you add value to the organization and their personal goals. But be careful not to become too entrenched with a political player. They don't tend to stay in one place for too long, or if they do it's because they are not afraid of throwing anyone under the bus when it suits them.
Even if you do get the relationship piece right and navigate the politics like a pro, you're still stuck with trying to prioritize your legal issues in a way that syncs up with the business. This means matching risk profiles, budgets, goals and projected outcomes with the real day to day work your team does. It's not always easy drawing the connection between your compliance program and business goals. Especially if you haven't made the right people connections so that you get the inside information on what are the true business goals. Best practice is to tie your priorities to the bottom line when possible. When not directly possible, tie it to the less measurable annual goals or to some other teams goals. Creating contract process that adds much needed controls on inconsistent practices? Sell it as reducing the transaction time, providing reporting and insight into customer/employee behaviors or a reduction in due diligence cost and time. And don't forget that the day to day needs will almost always outweigh the project timelines. No one cares what great project you've just accomplished or what it does for the company if it takes two weeks to get an NDA reviewed and signed.
With a little skill and a lot of luck, navigating the three P's well will enable you to do great things in your career. Or ensure that you never go anywhere.
Establishing a new legal department for the third time, I've come to realize that it's the business person behind my legal mind that adds the most value. I was lucky enough to have started my legal career at GoDaddy.com amongst some of the most talented lawyers I've ever met where I was taught to never stop learning and developing myself as a lawyer, business partner and most importantly as a person. Since then, I've moved through a very diverse group of employers; starting as the first and often only in house attorney for a manufacturer, ecommerce platform and now running the legal show at the best payment processor in the biz. As a graduate of Arizona State University and Arizona State University College of Law, I am a member of Arizona and Texas bars. In my limited spare time, I blog about the inner workings of the in house legal department (InHouseOutTakes.com) and enjoy spending time with the future boy band, 'The Avila Boys', otherwise known as my sons Zander, Gabriel and Slate. And yes, I know how extremely lucky I am.
Reprinted with permission from In-House. Out-Takes.