The first critical relationship you make as a new general counsel should be with the head of sales, veteran legal chiefs say. That’s because revenue is the lifeblood of any organization, so there’s no one better to be singing your praises at the executive table than the sales chief if you want to be seen as a partner that can get things done.
“I try to make them think of me and my legal team as the best things that ever walked the earth,” Commvault Chief Legal Officer Danielle Sheer said in a webcast hosted by contract management software company LinkSquares.
Sheer, who started as an outside counsel before moving in-house and is now in her third role as a legal leader, said the relationship with the CEO is all-important but having the revenue-generators in the organization talking you up helps pave the way for that relationship.
“I want the sales team to believe ours is a revenue generating legal team,” she said. “That changes everything inside the company — your reputation, the legal team’s reputation — because sales is [key to the organization’s success].”
One of the first things she likes to do in a new role is find quick wins that will help sales do their work better and faster, like creating a template for non-disclosure agreements that are easy to understand and use, so sales can get meetings with potential customers lined up without fuss.
“I tell sales to hand them out like candy,” she said. “Sure, sometimes people want to push strong paper, but more often than not, if you make it simple enough, easiest enough to read, it creates that first step of customer delight. I think of it like a handshake.”
Putting in place technology so sales can work entirely in Salesforce, even when they need the legal team to weigh in on a contract problem, is another quick win.
“Sales people [want to] live in Salesforce and only talk to the legal team in Salesforce,” she said. “That makes me look like a hero [if I can make that happen]. That starts making deposits into my trust bank account with these folks.”
Once you have the team, processes and systems in place to get things done, and can quantify what your team is doing, don’t let yourself get bogged down in tactical discussions. You’re most valuable keeping the focus on the strategic goals of your organization.
“When somebody involves me in a question, especially when that question is being asked in a larger group of people, I try to make sure my answer is not as tactical,” said Andy Dale, general counsel and chief privacy officer at OpenAP, a television ad software company. “I’ll answer the question, but then I’ll say, ‘That’s the answer to this tactical question. But when we grow and scale, it’s going to be this, or it’s going to change.’”
Keeping your eye on the strategic ball is essential because as the head of legal, your role isn’t about providing technical advice, said Dale, who started as outside counsel and is now in his third role as GC. You have a legal team or outside counsel or both to provide tactical analysis, he said. What’s more important is understanding what the leadership team wants to accomplish and then providing the strategic advice to help it get there.
“Tactical questions are unavoidable, but as long as you answer within a strategic lens, you’re still doing what you need to be doing,” he said.
Put another way, you want to check your legal specialty at the door when you sit at the executive table, said Sheer. “You’re a utility player for the rest of these teams, yes, but [you] don’t want to be part of a team that only wants to hear statements that are couched in the legal realm.”
That said, you still need to cover the body of work, the legal leaders said. You need to be competent on the law and have a team and process in place so the work gets done. But once you have these foundational pieces in place, you can’t let yourself get mired in the details and at the same time be the strategic partner the leadership team expects you to be.
“If your business folks call you and say, ‘I’m thinking about something and want to use you as a sounding board,’ you can’t be negotiating contracts or changing policies,” she said. “You can’t be in the weeds on making the machine work.”
If you fall back on a technical answer while the leadership team is talking strategy, you can bring the conversation to a halt, said Tim Parilla, chief legal officer at Linksquares. “It’s like a record scratch,” he said. “When a lawyer just sticks to the legal issues at a leadership meeting, it sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Adhering too closely to what’s right and wrong from a legal standpoint can inhibit you when it comes time to weigh risk, the legal chiefs said. There will likely be times when you must recommend between two difficult choices, like pushing the boundaries of the law as a way to get regulatory clarity or choosing the uncertainties of a lawsuit as a way to pursue business ends.
“There was one lawsuit … that was about the ecosystem in the industry, not about our company,” said Dale. “All things being equal, avoid a lawsuit. But if you’ve been wronged, you publicly need that to be known. You need to be in that conversation with the business leaders saying, ‘Yeah, there’s some risk to it.’ I would go so far as to say, you need to have a point of view.”
Just listing options for the leadership team “is a junior GC job,” said Sheer. “You’re not going to come back to them with a memo that says, ‘Here are all the reasons why this doesn’t necessarily work.’ That’s not the GC I want to be. I want you to ask me how to get this done. Are we more right than wrong?”
Parilla called these instances in which difficult choices must be made “bet the company” moments. They happen rarely, but they can define a general counsel when they do, because it’s not about narrow legal issues but whether the GC steps up as a strategic partner to help guide the leadership team through unknown territory. If you can’t take a position beyond the legal at these moments, you won’t be acting as a partner when the team needs it the most.
“Is my business going to be around if we don’t recover here?” said Parilla. “Often the answer is yes — for another year or two. But it won’t be successful going forward, so you almost have no choice but to fight the fight as well as you can. You shouldn’t be afraid of doing that.”