Of Business Partners, Trusted Advisors and Acumen: Lawyers as Business Leaders

Jack_McCall_JR_4542_7458-w
Jack H. (Nick) McCall*
Attorney,
Tennessee Valley Authority
Knoxville, Tennessee

Legal departments of many corporations and large entities are increasingly focusing on efforts to train and equip their lawyers to be (in a phrase) more than “just” lawyers: rather, they need to strive to become “business partners.” This concept is in no way a derogatory one towards lawyers or their legal skills. Rather, it is in recognition of those very skills, and the business acumen that good, skilled, effective lawyers can amass. In doing so, it recognizes that the best lawyers can bring a wide range of skills and talents besides law—these include negotiating and counseling, clarity in oral and written thought, and sometimes, a degree of psychological adroitness coupled with emotional intelligence and situational awareness—to the table.

Many business leaders recognize that this wide range of desirable skills and attributes is found in very good lawyers. These not only equip those lawyers to be exceptionally good consigliere to their corporate and non-profit clients, but increasingly, to leave the law department and become business unit managers and corporate leaders in their own right.

Several publications help expand on the role of lawyers as leaders and trusted advisors who can fulfill a wider range of roles in business than perhaps ones that are more traditional.

The Korn Ferry legal search firm discusses the “learning-agile general counsel” as being a lawyer who is more willing to take risks–itself, something of a dichotomy from what many of us may have learned in law school and our early years of practice (if not our personality types!)–to expand one’s business and financial acumen. In the words of the Korn Ferry piece: “Learning agility amplifies the ability to be successful in difficult, ambiguous, and first-time situations—a highly desirable trait for all executives, including legal executives.” Taking on significant roles in supporting or leading cross-functional business teams is emphasized as being integral to building and testing out learning agility, as well as assisting in relationship-building and internal networking. As the general counsel of Best Buy opined: “Don’t ever feel like you’re confined by your title. You can add value in different ways.”

For lawyers (and others) who seek to expand from more traditional modes of lawyering into closer business partner roles, one excellent resource is The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galfond. The focus of this book is on methods and ways to cultivate trust and forge more personal connections with clients and business colleagues. Written for a wide readership, this is not a book focused purely on legal professionals. Nevertheless, its practical tips and suggestions (even if many are commonsensical in nature) offer viable tools for all professionals—including lawyers—to forge better-grounded, more holistic connections in a way that can transcend traditional lawyering counseling-and-advising methods.

While the concept of lawyers as business partners and trusted advisors is one that has increasing currency in general counsel and in-house legal circles, it should not be difficult to see that it also has equally clear applications outside the in-house sphere. Any tools that can help foster a closer connection—and enhance trust, and thus, enhance communications–between a lawyer and her or his client are worthy of study and pursuit.

*The opinions and viewpoints contained in the article are those of the author and are not to be imputed to his employer or the U.S. government.

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