Taking Care of Business

As we all know from Bridesmaids, Annie Walker baked the most incredible and beautiful cakes at her bakery, Baby Cakes, yet she failed. Why?

Annie did not understand the business part of her job and the same happens to lawyers all the time. They focus so much on their legal craft that they do not spend time understanding business.

Whether you are outside counsel or in-house counsel, it is critical that you understand that your technical skills are only part of what will propel you to success. Each of these endeavors are part of a business, and for businesses to be successful, you must make money.

On the other hand, in Baby Boom, J.C. Wiatt leaves the rat race of Wall Street behind to live a bucolic life in Vermont. Unfortunately, her dream home becomes a money pit. Yet, understanding business she is able to create her own dream company. 

Understanding your economic environment allows you to better position yourself for success. Below are some ways you can avoid Annie's fate and thrive.

Understand Your Business Environment.  

You need to understand how your organization and clients make money. What are the drivers and how do you impact that?

If you are at a law firm, does your firm have enough institutional clients that business development is not as important as at other law firms? (But remember, if you think you may need to leave that firm you still may need to focus on it.) 

You need to understand the economic drivers at your firm, and every firm is different.

If having a book of business is not necessary at your firm, what is? Is it high-quality legal work, internal relationships, speaking engagements, client feedback? You need to figure out the model and criteria for making partner and enhancing your compensation.

If having clients is critical at your firm, how powerful are your business development skills? If you need to enhance them, what internal support is at the firm to help you develop this skill? You must create a plan to strengthen those skills. This will take an investment of time. Here, you must also understand the criteria for making partner, how compensation and your metrics position you for getting to the next level.

For in-house counsel, your business partners are looking for lawyers who understand their businesses and how they make money. You are also now part of a company where lawyers are not the revenue generators - other areas are - and they want you to focus on efficient processes, financial integrity (ensuring well-managed budgets and forecasts), and clear communications. And if you are lucky enough to manage a team, they want you to know how to build a diverse team, enhance skills, and create an inclusive environment.

Understand What is Important to Your Stakeholders.

In addition to appreciating your business environment, you need to understand what is essential to your stakeholders. If you are vying to be a partner or move up the corporate ladder, you should understand who has input into those decisions and what is important to them.

For example, each of the corporate promotion decision-makers may value different things. The HR person at the table may be looking for indications of management capabilities and commitment to diversity. The head of the department may value lawyering skills, such as having closed a $500 million transaction with no supervision. The head of a legal department may also focus on someone who, along with everything else, is strong on administration tasks and can help the department run smoother.

You need to understand what is essential to each individual and make sure they know you have the right skills.

Also, for in-house counsel, your business clients are critical stakeholders. You must understand what they expect from their advisers. I can assure you it is not just legal skills.

At a law firm, the Executive or Compensation Committees may be looking for the business that you have brought in either directly, cross-selling, or relationships you have. Other important stakeholders are targets and clients. Do you know what is important to them?

You need to understand what their pain points are as much as what they value.

Take Steps to Be Known for What is Important.

Once you know what is important to your stakeholders, you need to convey that you have these skills and behaviors that they value. As the saying goes, it is not who knows you but who knows what you know and do? So how do you do this?

First, you should inventory whether you have built strong enough relationships with stakeholders. I spoke to one woman who was aspiring to partner. She had made no efforts to develop relationships with the people who sat on the executive committee or anyone else who would have a say in recommending her for partnership. How can someone speak for you if they don't know you or what you bring to the table?

Second, through words, stories, and actions, you need to demonstrate that you have the necessary skills and behaviors to deserve their support.

Third, if you don't have what the stakeholders value, you need to attain it. For example, you haven't done well managing an international project or don't have the necessary relationships to build a big enough book of business. You need to develop a plan to develop skills. You also need to let people know that you are working at obtaining what they value and you give updates on progress.

This does not happen overnight. It takes commitment.

Planning and Execution.

I have outlined three simple steps, but everyone would be doing it if it was that simple. It is not easy and often requires stepping out of your comfort zone.

When you flesh out what is required of you to accomplish these steps, you realize that there may be multiple tracks you must keep track of and achieve. For example, you may need to develop five new clients while trying to establish two cross-selling arrangements and, at the same time, developing relationships with members of the Executive Committee. An in-house person may have three critical skills to enhance and four relationships to strengthen, all on top of their day job and keeping their sponsor informed. The key is not to get overwhelmed and to continue to take action.

To continue to thrive and grow, you cannot rely solely on legal skills. You need to understand the business aspects of your environment, your stakeholders' needs, and act on them. Be like JC who took control of her business and built the life she wanted. 


Sheila Murphy

Founder of Focus Forward Consulting

For over 20 years, as a former senior legal officer for a Fortune 50 company, I successfully developed, coached and transformed talent in corporations and law firms, as well as...