Tim Parilla is the chief legal officer of LinkSquares and former general counsel of DraftKings. Views are the author’s own.
Being the first legal professional in a company can be daunting, especially for those becoming a general counsel (GC) or chief legal officer (CLO) for the first time.
The good news is that there has never been a better time to be a legal team of one. GCs and senior legal professionals bring specialized knowledge and skills that are indispensable to the business.
Executives need strategic, adaptable thinkers to propel the business forward, and lawyers bring a unique set of skills and, oftentimes a different perspective to the mix when joining a company as an in-house attorney.
Becoming a true partner embedded within the business is essential for success, and it is much easier said than done.
GCs must balance an array of important business objectives while helping integrate risk anticipation, evaluation and management into strategic decision-making throughout the company.
Getting started can involve some growing pains, but the priorities outlined below provide a roadmap to becoming a strong, respected and valued leader in the business.
1. Take an optimistic mindset
Too often, legal teams come off as the department of "no" in a business by being overly cautious in avoiding potentially risky outcomes associated with business decisions.
However, successfully running an in-house legal function (even a one-person department) requires considering the business implications first and then understanding whether there are any meaningful legal risks.
The best legal leaders find creative solutions to requests from stakeholders rather than simply denying proposed courses of action.
In many cases, being a strong leader and business partner means becoming comfortable accepting the risk and being confident you can handle any potential consequences.
Consistent and open collaboration with colleagues builds trust and helps drive better results, and ultimately will determine the level of success the GC or CLO will have in truly driving the business forward.
2. Identify key stakeholders and build relationships
Legal leaders have stakeholders spread throughout the business, many of whom need consistent, reliable, workable advice.
When stepping into a newly formed legal function, GCs must prioritize meeting with these stakeholders, asking questions, and learning about the company, the team, and any particularly challenging issues that the business stakeholders are facing or have faced in the past.
A few critical relationships to establish early on include:
- The C-Suite. Businesses hire in-house attorneys not only to mitigate or manage legal risk, but also to help drive business growth and innovation. Demonstrating a clear understanding of the business, as well as an eagerness to better understand the business, and how that understanding shapes the guidance the GC provides and decisions the GC makes is essential to success. Establishing regular communication with the C-Suite to discuss the challenges, successes, and opportunities facing the business will show the GC’s dedication to participating beyond the legal function and provides a forum for the GC to work collaboratively across the entire business to help propel the company forward.
- Sales. All eyes stay trained on the sales team, no matter your industry. Legal is an integral part of the business, working with the sales team to close revenue-generating business. While there is a part of the job involving risk evaluation and management, driving deals in partnership with your sales team colleagues is of critical importance. Many major deals need a contract drafted, amended, and approved, and legal functions must work closely with the sales team to streamline the contract process. Become a critical part of the sales process, not just someone who reviews contracts. Drive process improvements, enhance stakeholder visibility into the legal work being done, and increase sales efficiency to raise the legal team's profile and push the business forward - your sales team (and your C-Suite) will love you for it.
- Other senior leaders. A GC needs to build relationships across the organization with all functional leaders and high-impact teams, not just the sales team and the exec team. For example, a GC should work closely with the marketing team to understand the go-to-market motion, and how you can help work with the team to get a competitive advantage leveraging the team’s creative materials across many different outlets consistent within any competitive restraints, and obtaining and enforcing IP protections on your most successful assets. A GC should also get to know the product development team’s leadership and understand how customers use the company’s product or service. A GC’s true value-add is being an expert in the company more so than by being an expert in the law, so take the time to become that expert and build and maintain relationships across the entire leadership team to help deepen understanding of the business and the company’s customers.
3. Champion operational excellence
In-house legal leaders should feel empowered to get into the weeds and build processes where needed. The legal team must prioritize organization, project management, and consistent communication and be an example of a team that understands the results are less meaningful if the process to get to those results was chaotic or non-existent.
Make a point to showcase how the team’s focus on organization and process (as well as top-tier legal competence) has driven better results and better service to the business.
Setting this example will help show the business units that working together cross-functionally in an organized, predictable and transparent way will result in a better outcome for the business. Help build repeatable processes that can be translated from function to function.
Be uncompromising in driving the legal team’s emphasis on these “non-legal” aspects of working in-house and the team will be a great example for how the business should run a function.
4. Report on vital achievements
CLOs and GCs should regularly present data to the board or at staff meetings, highlighting the most fundamental metrics that demonstrate how the legal function is contributing to the overall company performance. Begin with some big, quantifiable wins from the last month, quarter or other relevant time frame and put those wins into context for the audience.
Try to keep the metrics easy to digest and be sure to tell how the metrics help shape the overall story of success. Major company events and summaries of day-to-day activity should be presented in parallel and should give an understanding of how the legal team works with the business to help accomplish business objectives.
Here are some examples of wins to celebrate with the “higher-ups”:
- Funding rounds are a lot of work and often take months to come together. Once a round closes, GCs deserve the opportunity to show off. Come to the meeting excited to celebrate the newly acquired capital, highlighting how efficiencies within the legal team minimized timelines to close and made due diligence and doc negotiation a breeze;
- M&A events always require plenty of heavy lifting by legal. From due diligence to deal structure, to contract drafting and negotiations, the transactions involved can be complex and time-sensitive. Showing how your process and organization got to a better, faster result and a more streamlined closing process and post-closing integration is a great way to show the legal team’s value;
- Sales wins are usually credited exclusively to the sales team, and for good reason (salespeople are amazing, btw). However, showing the role that legal plays in bringing on new customers and closing new deals, including contract generation, negotiations, and structure design and approvals is a good way to help contextualize the impact legal has on the closing and ultimate success of the revenue side of the business.
5. Invest in technology
Sales teams have Salesforce, marketers have HubSpot and the finance team has NetSuite. But the legal function has traditionally operated out of file cabinets, spreadsheets, an email client and Microsoft Word.
Modern tools can help streamline the contracting process, accelerate deal closings, centralize and extract critical information from existing contracts, and capture data that can be used to showcase the team's contribution to the business.
Also, get creative if you have only limited resources to purchase technology at the outset.
Being the sole legal team member means resources are at a premium, so take advantage of allowing the business self-service access to basic legal resources. That can mean creating template forms and automated links on your company’s wiki for items such as NDAs, standard contracts, compliance documentation and more.
For GCs in companies using knowledge management tools, creating easy-to-use pages with frequently requested information is a great way to allow the organization to get legal resources without adding much strain to the individual GC.
The key to being a successful in-house attorney on a small team is to find and solve complex problems. Be resourceful, creative, and above all, be a team player.