Communicating your way to influence: top tips for in-house legal teams

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A few months ago, Thomson Reuters organised the GC Leadership Summit, which focussed on becoming an innovative GC during times of change. I was asked to facilitate a panel on “Effective communication skills to influence across the business”.

Veena Marr (Global Head of IP at eBay) and Clare Belcher (Head of Legal at Travelex) joined me on the panel. This made my job very easy as they both had so many great actionable tips. With the room full of other senior in-house legal folks, we were really able to tap into a wealth of experience.

Fortunately, I had kept notes summarising all the great tips, so I’ll share them here. A lot of the tips focussed around two key areas:

  • How to be seen as problem solvers instead of problem creators
  • How to deal with irrational, difficult or awkward business colleagues
Being seen as problem solvers
  • You’re a hub: without knowing it, legal often becomes a knowledge hub due to its visibility across the business. This often creates a great opportunity to pro-actively add (sometimes unexpected!) value for your business colleagues. This helps create an internal perception of legal being a helpful bunch.

  • Give business alternatives: every objection from legal should include a few business alternatives, even if they don’t work. This tip actually came from me :-). At Lexoo we always instruct our panel lawyers for our own legal work. As CEO, I notice a big difference in how helpful I perceive our lawyers to be based on how many business alternatives they think up. Quite often, those alternatives might not quite work for a number of reasons, but the fact that they try means I get a lot less defensive when I receive advice I’d rather not hear. It means that I trust that they’re fundamentally trying to help the business, instead of creating difficulties.

  • Physically sit with the business: having your team physically sit close to your business colleagues really helps you understand what the mission of the wider business is. This makes it less likely that your team defaults to the normal “lawyer/client” relationship, and it prevents an “us vs them” mentality (on both sides).

  • Translate wider company values to legal: it’s a good exercise to work through the wider company values and see what legal can do to express them. This signals the importance of the values within the legal team, but also shows the wider business that legal takes the values seriously and that it is doing its part in pushing them. Another suggestion was to include this as a part of the appraisal process of your team members.

  • Use pictures and fewer words: whenever possible, try to cut words out. Non-lawyers don’t like to read long paragraphs, no matter how beautifully crafted. If you can make the point using images instead of words, even better. The most respected in-house lawyers are often those who put in the effort to translate a complex legal reality to simple concepts. One audience member spoke about how they created a giant monopoly board to gamify and train commercial colleagues on the nuances of international compliance regulations.

  • Writing without bullshit: Mark Twain famously said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. There’s truth to that. Writing succinctly takes time, but it is worth it. A suggestion was to always keep in mind that the reader’s time is more important than your own. A recommended book was: “Writing without bullshit".

  • Use “yes if” instead of “no”: this positions legal as fundamentally trying to be helpful.

Dealing with irrational people

It’s a familiar feeling: you give quite reasonable advice to a business colleague, and you get a completely irrational response. Your internal defence mechanisms kick in and the red mist descends. How do you turn that situation around?

  • Feel your feet: one tip was to ‘feel your feet’, physically. Try to feel how your feet connect to the ground. This is quite a well known anger management tactic, and it works to shift your attention when confronted with irrational people. The trick is to focus entirely on the soles of your feet, move your toes slowly, and feel your shoes covering your feet and pressed against the ground beneath. Keep focussing on your feet until you feel calm again and regain control of the conversation.

  • Address it: explicitly addressing someone else’s response also works to move the conversation forward: “Why are you angry about this?”

  • Learn how colleagues like to receive advice: different people like to receive advice in different ways. There are quite a few tests out there that will allocate everybody a ‘colour’ based on how they like to be communicated with. Some people like to receive a heads-up via e-mail so they can think about issues in advance; others would much rather address issues upfront and in-person.

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