• Engage your attorney

Using General Counsel Well: Three Tips for Entrepreneurs

by Noel Bagwell
for ExecutiveLP

June 28, 2016

“Engage!” What Your General Counsel Needs to Hear from You

When I get to do what I do best for my clients, as their General Counsel, my job is incredibly rewarding. Even the most rewarding jobs have their challenges, though. One of the challenges I face is trying to educate entrepreneurs about the role a General Counsel attorney should play in their business.

Because many entrepreneurs don’t have a business degree or an M.B.A. and because many of them don’t come from “the corporate world,” they often have no idea how to work with their General Counsel to protect and add real value to their business.

Sometimes, when I ask an entrepreneur, “Do you have General Counsel,” they say things like, “Well, I don’t really need one; I haven’t ever sued anyone before, and I haven’t been sued yet.” This is a huge red flag indicating the entrepreneur is not a sophisticated businessperson and does not understand the role of General Counsel. If they did, they would know entrepreneurs need General Counsel even in the absence of litigation (to prevent litigation, among other problems).

This is not an article about all the reasons entrepreneurs need General Counsel, though. This article is about how to engage well with General Counsel once your business has hired them. Sometimes, even when an entrepreneur hires a General Counsel attorney, they ignore them for weeks (or months), because they don’t really know how to engage with them. Even when a business with General Counsel doesn’t ignore them, they don’t often know how to engage efficiently and effectively with them.

3 Tips for Using General Counsel Well

I’m not one to gripe about a problem without presenting a solution. So, below are three helpful tips for entrepreneurs for how to use General Counsel well:

1. Don’t Ignore Your General Counsel

This point is separate from any point I might make about your General Counsel’s advice. I mean, literally, don’t ignore the person. If they’re good at what they do, they want to help you; but they also understand there is far more to running a business than dealing with legal issues all day. Good General Counsel will be reactive to the client, and proactive in addressing the client’s concerns.

Letting your General Counsel know what your legal needs, concerns, and questions are is your responsibility; so, you should reach out to them regularly (I recommend at least every two weeks) to schedule a call or a virtual meeting and update them on what’s going on with your business, and ask for their relevant legal advice.

2. Always Remember, Your General Counsel Is On Your Side

One of the things businesspeople tend to dislike about lawyers, generally, is that lawyers say, “No.” The reason lawyers sometimes say, “No,” is because they are looking out for you. Your focus should be on running your business, day-to-day, executing your business plan. Your General Counsel attorney’s focus is on proactively and preventively protecting your business from the threat of litigation and other legal risks.

A good General Counsel attorney will say “No” from time to time, but a great General Counsel attorney will say, “Not that way, but this way…” Protecting my clients proactively is about finding the right way to accomplish their goals, it’s about doing the right thing the right way. Doing the right thing the right way is about saying “Yes,” and not killing the deal while still limiting your client’s legal exposure. Good General Counsel attorneys know this, and when they’re saying, “Not that way, but this way…,” the client should be attentive to that, and not just hear, “No.”

That’s what clients don’t always see. They don’t always understand their General Counsel is on their side, and things can become adversarial when a client hears, “No,” when their General Counsel attorney is really just saying, “Not that way.” Of course, sometimes your General Counsel attorney really is saying, “No.” When that happens, you need to listen, because it means you’re doing something wrong, not just doing the right thing the wrong way.

3. Be Clear

Lawyers spend a lot of time and effort clarifying ideas using words. When they’re “on the clock,” it can become second nature for lawyers to parse every word spoken to them, written in a message to them, or written in a contract they’re reviewing. Words matter. Be clear.

Use good grammar. It is not unreasonable to expect that your lawyer may lose respect for you if your grammar, spelling, and punctuation is careless. (No one is perfect. Do your best.) Yes, this goes for e-mail, too!

Use good words. Using profanity can be useful. We all say shit, sometimes. When profanity is excessively used, it not only can be an indication of weakness of character or vocabulary, but it can also make what you’re trying to say less clear.

Avoid overusing or misusing pronouns. Lawyers need facts. If you’re giving your General Counsel attorney the facts he needs in order to do his job, be as clear as possible. If you’re telling your lawyer, “He gave it to him, and then they went there,” your lawyer may ask, “Who gave what to whom and where did they go?” You’ve wasted valuable time and presented more questions than facts. Be clear; avoid unnecessary pronouns.

Talk It Out

Whether you’re looking for a General Counsel attorney, or considering ending your relationship with yours, because you’re just not seeing the value, you need to talk to the attorney you’re considering hiring or letting go. You need to communicate with them about your needs. You need to be clear. You need to remember that they want to help you, and–at the risk of being utterly cliché–you need to help them help you.

One of the services we offer with all our General Counsel legal service plans is legal risk management training. Part of this service is training the management team of a business how to use their General Counsel legal services well and how to engage with their General Counsel attorney. Consider this training like the “owner’s manual” for our Signet™ General Counsel legal service plan. It’s pretty neat. Well, we think so, anyway.

Whoever your General Counsel attorney is should be willing to help you understand how to get the most out of your General Counsel legal services. So, if you feel like you’re not getting all you’re paying for, engage with your General Counsel attorney, and ask them why that might be. Odds are, they’ll have some more suggestions, like the ones above, for how they can help add value to your business.

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