I have written before about how effective lawyers focus on providing solutions, as opposed to acting like a mere traffic light that says stop or go. A few months back, I was to talk about an experience that had an impact on my career development. I told the following story about my first day at a tech start-up more than a decade ago:
On my first day at the start-up where I previously worked, the CEO and founder who had literally made hundreds of millions selling businesses he had founded, proposed a certain marketing campaign. I sent him a lengthy email with a very well-reasoned description of why his idea was misguided. He called me into his office and said, “Eric, I know you are very smart, but I didn’t hire you to tell me that my ideas are bad. Either you make them better, come up with a better idea, or don’t come back to work tomorrow.” I was very embarrassed because I knew he was right. So often we lawyers get caught up in telling the clients what they shouldn’t do, when we need to focus on providing solutions. Whenever I find myself becoming a nay-sayer, I remember that conversation and what my role is supposed to be.
Here is a good check list of things legal teams can do to avoid becoming the “Department of No”. Nevertheless, finding solutions is easier said than done.
When I had written about what it takes to be an effective in-house lawyer back in April, one of my favorite business-side colleagues sent me a message asking to put my money where my mouth was on a particular transaction we were working on. My team had reviewed a prospective customer contract and identified dozens of potentially unacceptable terms, and my internal clients were not impressed. In that instance, I had to explain that we weren’t trying to “kill” the deal, just describe the ugly commercial conditions hidden in the contract, a document that they likely had not reviewed yet. Contracts aren’t really about the law. They are mainly about the business, so often times lawyers are simply informing our clients of the inconvenient reality of what the terms of the deal are.
But point taken. Lawyers shouldn’t aspire to be mere messengers and contract readers. We need to find ways to make a deal better than the one sitting on our desks. In the last two weeks, I have had to remind myself of that story from my start-up days to make sure I was part of the solution, not the problem. Just always keep in mind that if you ignore the problems, then you are not providing a solution either.