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10 Business Skills You Need to Know

Introduction by Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications

Sterling Miller is one of our favorite columnists. While his latest column is actually titled “10 Things: Business Skills All In-House Lawyers Should Master,” his advice is applicable to anyone who wants to be a great managing partner, a “trusted adviser” to clients (instead of simply being what I call a transactionalist), a great partner, junior associate or rainmaker – regardless of the field you’re in or where you are in your career.

Ten Things: Business Skills All In-House Lawyers Anyone Aspiring to Leadership Should Master

In my newest book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department, I include a section on the evolution of the role of in-house counsel.  I walk through the “dark ages” (lawyers in the basement alone and ignored) all the way to the current phase of “leaders/strategic thinkers” (using our lawyer superpowers to become valued partners to the business).   As I see it, the part of the role that has changed the most over the course of this evolution is the need for in-house lawyers to bring more to the table than just good legal skills.  Those are just your ticket to get into the circus.  To be successful, to be viewed as a partner to the business, and to get your seat at the big kids’ table with the filet mignon, you must also possess a set of key business skills.  How do I know this?  Well, I fumbled and bumbled my way through the process the hard way, i.e., I had to figure it out mostly on my own (but certainly – and thankfully – with the help of some key mentors along the way).  But I did figure it out and had a seat at the table as general counsel three times where I learned that the business had its own language (numbers) and way of doing things (business school) that were foreign to me given my legal background.  After thinking about it a bit, I realized that almost everyone at the table had a background in certain business skills that I did not possess.  Moreover, while everyone was more than happy to explain things if you asked; if you didn’t ask, they just assumed you were playing the same game they were playing, and it was on you to keep up with the class.  And, of course, like most lawyers, I was too proud to just up and announce that I had no clue about half the shit they were talking about.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to know I had to level up or I was soon destined for the little kids’ table and a nice Happy Meal of chicken nuggets.  So, level up I did.  And over the course of eight years of writing this blog, I have mentioned a wide assortment of business skills you need to succeed in the role.  But what I have not done is list all those skills in one post.  This edition of “Ten Things” corrects that oversight and sets out the ten essential business skills you must master to succeed as an in-house counsel.  And thanks to Marco Bijl, Head of Legal at Philips, for the idea:

  1. Finance.  Unfortunately, we must start with math (hey, don’t yell at me, I am only the messenger here).  As I mentioned, the business speaks its own language, and that language is numbers.  You do not need an MBA, or a finance or accounting degree (or how to use those awesome HP calculators the finance guys are always whipping out where you enter the information backward), but you must have a certain comfort level with some critical financial concepts.
  2. Negotiation.  Of the many things they do not teach you in law school, basic business negotiation is high on the list.[1] But, for some reason, everyone assumes that lawyers know how to negotiate.  As if we dropped out of the womb with some magical power to get business deals across the finish line.  Well, we didn’t and we don’t.  Negotiation skills must be learned (and honed).
  3. Business writing.  One of the first things to do when you move in-house is to forget almost everything they taught you about legal writing in law school and at the law firm.  It just doesn’t work in the business world.  In fact, writing like a lawyer will make you about as popular as a leper at the Miss American pageant.  To start, I am not saying that you need to stop thinking like a lawyer.  Not at all.  But, when you are translating those high-quality legal thoughts to paper (or email) you need to understand a few things.  First, your audience doesn’t really give a crap about legal issues.
  4. Delegation.  Most lawyers are not good at delegation.  This is primarily because either they think no one can do the work but themselves (false) or they view it simply as a way to get work off their desk onto someone else’s desk (bad).  While the latter is a good trick if you can pull it off, it’s not really delegating.  It’s more like fobbing off stuff you don’t want to do for whatever reason and letting the “fobbee” sink or swim on their own merits.
  5. Comfort with technology.  As uncomfortable as lawyers are with delegating properly, they are even more uncomfortable with technology.  That’s not a good look when it comes to working in-house.  First, all businesses rely on technology to do things more efficiently, faster, and cheaper.  If their in-house legal team is relying on paper and pens you can see the mismatch (and why businesses might wonder if they have the right folks running the legal department).  Second, if headcount is limited (and when is it not?), technology can provide a true path to doing “more with less” – if you have the right technology and are using it properly.

For more detail about 1-5 above and for tips 6-10, click here.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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