Does your company hold employee “social events”? These range from bigger events like town halls, summer picnics, and holiday parties, to smaller, more intimate socials like Friday afternoon ice cream sundae breaks, cubicle-decorating contests, and themed get-togethers. They all have the same goals — encourage a team atmosphere, help boost morale, and announce company information.
Do you think of these events as times for you to relax, stuff yourself with free food, and take a break from work? Do you have a tendency to blow off some of these events as fluffy wastes of time (obviously the lawyers who show up for these aren’t as busy as you are)? If so, that’s a big mistake.
My take is that these “social” events should generally be viewed as “work,” not breaks from work. They’re fantastic opportunities for you to advance your in-house legal career, so just relaxing and having fun at these events means you’re missing out on a lot. Also, let’s be serious here, they’re not really all that fun. I mean, Mardi Gras = fun. A night on the town with your best buddies = fun. Cocktail weenies in the lobby next to the copy room = meh.
So forget the fun, and get to work at the socials!
First, social events are ideal situations for you to have easy access to tons of information. How often are lots of people from different areas of the company gathered in one place, ready to chat with you about anything, when normally they would just see you as a walking contract or lawsuit who tries to prevent them from doing what they really want to do (just because of some silly laws)?
Sure, some of these people are only at these events to get in some face time so that they can look like a team player. And many are foolishly focused on actually having fun at these things. But I say that you start seeing them with different eyes. They each represent opportunities for you to get more information than you have a right to. The more information you get, the more you can learn about how the company operates, whether officially or unofficially, and the better a lawyer you’ll become.
Here are some examples of what you can learn while HR is laying down the rules for the Pimp Your Cubicle Contest:
- Development perks. There may be training and development programs that haven’t been generally publicized yet. If you wait until word “officially” gets out, you may find yourself on a waiting list.
- Special projects. There may be an upcoming large project that you would want to ask to be staffed on (especially if they haven’t assigned a lawyer on it yet!).
- Cutting down on work. Another lawyer may be working on a matter that’s similar to yours but is farther along, or even better, is done, and has come up with tools or perspectives that you haven’t.
- Business clients behaving badly. You may find out about a legal issue that you should have known about, but which the business client hadn’t considered telling you. His bad. For attorneys who are responsible for a business unit, you’re expected to be aware of all of the legal issues relating to that business. The last thing you want is for the general counsel of your company to somehow find out first about a legal issue relating to your business. Better to trick your client into telling you during an informal conversation where he thinks he’s just chatting about what’s on his mind and not about legal issues.
Figuring out the right questions to ask takes practice and depends on what kind of information you’re looking for and from whom. But the good thing is that a lot of people at these events are just waiting for the time to pass so that they can hasten to the refuge of their office or cube. Many of them will welcome the chance to talk to someone about what’s going on in their world if it will help the time to pass more quickly.
Social events at work are also a chance for you to appear more accessible and approachable. For some reason, a lot of non-lawyers find lawyers kind of intimidating. They may assume that we’re smarter than they are (and we’re not really inclined to correct them). Or some may assume that we THINK we’re smarter. Others may assume we’re terribly busy on lawyerly things and can’t be bothered. Or maybe they just assume that we’re boring.
Whatever the case, social events at work are occasions when non-lawyers can approach you more freely. The higher up in the food chain you are at the company, the more important it is for you that others consider you approachable and accessible. Whether you’re a lawyer or not, most people find executives and senior leaders to be really intimidating. I was surprised to find that, at our company’s ice cream socials, the senior-level executives were the ones serving the ice cream. It’s really quite brilliant if you think about it, since they get to be in a role that requires no training, have exposure to everyone who wants ice cream, and participate in a feel-good activity. It also decreases the intimidation level a tiny bit (unless they’re grouchy or stingy when serving the ice cream, in which case, all bets are off).
So, these company social events are opportunities to get some great information and to practice your soft skills. Both are highly important for your career development, and the latter are generally neglected by law schools and law firms. Lawyers often don’t realize how quickly they’re judged as competent or valuable based on these skills. When’s the last time you thought about executive presence? Once business clients have become more comfortable with us in a social setting, there’s a tendency for that to translate to increased comfort and trust in the work setting. So go on over to those cocktail weenies and get some solid work done!
Have you been successful at “working” at your company’s socials? If so, let me know by emailing me at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.