In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Moonlighting: Getting Business People to Listen to You

Holiday season is in full blast now, so what better time to discuss traditional end-of-year topics like performance reviews, gifting at the office, and what it’s like to advise business clients. Okay, so maybe that last one’s not quite the merrily common topic at around this time. But I’m already getting weary of all this have a happy holiday however it is you celebrate, and here are also some brand-spanking new year wishes thing, so bah. This is what we’re talking about today.

How companies expect their lawyers to advise them differs among companies. If you’re lucky, you work among people who appreciate and value lawyers for both their legal advice and their business sensibilities. (And if you’re really lucky, among people who are strangely okay with you blogging on an occasionally gossipy legal news site.) Business people who listen to your legal and business advice may respect that you work across several business units and get to see stuff that the individual groups don’t. Or they may just blindly trust you. That works too (for you).

At other companies, business people just want the in-house lawyer to stay focused on talking about legal issues and only legal issues, and don’t want to hear about any of the non-legal perspectives the lawyer may have to offer. And of course, there are other business people who don’t even really care for listening to any of the legal stuff (this may pose a bit of a problem if lawsuits or jail are some of the things they are interested in avoiding).

To be fair, the level of appreciation that business people have for their counsel’s advice, whether legal or non-legal, depends a lot on the individual lawyer’s capabilities….

The ideal business environment is collaborative and team-work oriented. The ability to be creative and adaptable is highly valued and important for the success of most companies. So yeah, we lawyers are kind of screwed from the get go. But never fear! With experience, even we who colored inside the lines at six weeks of age can learn to think out of the box! (Or at least appear to be trying to cooperate with others.)

According to In-house Lawyering 101, the following is not a satisfactory response: “That’s what the law (or contract) says, so we can’t do it.” Sometimes lawyers stop there because it’s simply the easy thing to do. Or sometimes they just don’t know what else to say.

Instead, it’s better to continue past “we can’t do it” by offering the business alternatives that are still legal, or at least less risky: “We can’t display Nike’s logo on our website, but displaying their name in regular font should be okay as fair use.” Figuring out practical alternatives comes with experience — having seen what’s been acceptable to business people and what’s been successful in similar situations. And also with understanding as much as possible about the business so that you can have a good idea of whether a certain solution you offer even makes sense.

The way the in-house lawyer delivers the message may be even more important than the message itself. Some lawyers never bother to explain to their business people why Legal says they must do this or that. And while it’s not generally a good idea to go into an extended discourse of antitrust law with individuals who’d like to spend their time on just about anything else (read: every non-legal person), it is generally a good idea to offer a quick summary of the reasoning or rationale behind a particular statute or requirement. Business people also will find it helpful if you can provide some idea of the risks and potential expenses of going down a particular route.

There are also a lot of “soft” aspects to the delivery of a message that business people don’t want to hear. For example, sometimes lawyers get kind of angry or defensive if the business client pushes back on or questions their advice. People who are attracted to careers in the legal field tend to have personalities that are very black and white/rules-based and they often get upset when others break (or have shattered) the rules. Other lawyers respond to clients in a way that makes the business person feel dumb for asking. Or a lawyer’s reaction to a client’s second guessing may be perceived as a bit judgy: “You’re going to hell and I mean right now!” Surprisingly, approaches that are more explanatory and respectful go over better than those above.

Advising business clients as an in-house lawyer involves a balance of fully appreciating both the law and the business and offering counsel in a way that fosters trust and confidence from the client. And it helps if you can get them to actually like you too. But perhaps that’s pushing it. In any case, the better you’re able to come up with practical, creative solutions, the more likely it is that you and your business people will be able to develop a mutual respect for each other while quietly butting heads. Even lawyers may find that coloring outside the lines can be fun!

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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