Why is The Lawyer Presenting This?

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Laura Woods
Senior Counsel, Eastman Chemical Company

I was, admittedly, jarred when the question was asked. It came from a leader at my company, on the heels of his heaping praise about my presentation, its effectiveness, its engagement, its overall rock-the-world awesomeness (okay, I added that last superlative; but that was definitely the vibe I was getting from him).

“Why wouldn’t I be doing this?” was the response I wanted to blurt back. But the questioner had a point. It wasn’t technically legal work. I wasn’t quoting statutes, CFRs, or case law, nor was I offering legal advice. My presentation certainly called upon my years of practice experience, sharing with my colleagues the various learnings and results from numerous root cause analyses my team had performed during the last year. There wasn’t a §, et seq., or Bluebook citation to be found in it.

My company had not needed me to show my legal research prowess. We had a developing situation on our hands that required action, not Westlaw. The company had looked to me to create, drive, and deliver on a plan that was going to directly and effectively tamp down what was happening. There was this weird thing, though – I was already working on the plan. I hadn’t waited on anyone in the organization to tell me it needed me to lead it. I just assumed that was what I was to do, and I was doing it.

Over the course of my time as a lawyer, I’ve found that less and less of my time is spent quoting the applicable statute or thumbing through (yes, I still use paper) the Family and Medical Leave Act regulations, for example. This has born true in both my private practice and in-house roles.

In fact, there are times I question whether I should even be in the law department at my company. The occasional contract question arises that necessitates an interpretation; or Risk Management engages me to assess potential liability and exposure. You know – traditional lawyer “stuff.”

Thus, why do I wonder whether I belong in the law department? Why would I be any less of a lawyer in successfully creating, implementing, and executing a plan that addresses change management and culture learnings? Why would my role in leading us to a successful outcome be considered odd because it wasn’t a “lawyer” thing?

I’m here to challenge the thinking that a lawyer is only someone who does the traditional “stuff,” and you’re almost a freak of nature if you venture away from that.

Every day, we, as lawyers, find ourselves filling a vacuum when others will not or do not. In my most recent situation, I didn’t give anyone else an opportunity to do it. The situation was that important to me; the consequences, at least in my eyes, were so stiff that I thought it was my duty and obligation to stand in front. No one challenged me on my role. And I think we, as lawyers, are more like that version of Laura than the one that can quote you chapter and verse on when an employer becomes covered under the FMLA.

Our profession requires us to identify a situation, discuss options, and offer recommendations. At my work, this process is embraced by the acronym SOR: situation, option(s), recommendation(s). (In our defense – we are a company of many, many engineers; creativity might not be one of our top 5 StrengthsFinder.) That is a powerful skill set when everything is sideways. Certainly, times will arise when the options and recommendations are driven by statutes, regulations, or other legal guidance.

During those times that the situation calls for non-traditional “stuff,” I hope you don’t shy away or say, “Why would a lawyer do that?” Getting that juris doctorate was not easy, and you have to be of a certain mettle to throw your hat into that ring. Step in, step up, and step out of the traditional lawyer mold. I dare say your client will appreciate you for doing so, and you will grow in your expertise. The world is changing at a fever pitch; why shouldn’t we in our roles as legal partners?

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