I recently had the opportunity to share my Top Ten Thoughts for the Relationship Partners of Tomorrow at the Mansfield Rule Chicago Client Forum, sponsored by Diversity Lab and hosted by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. It was a great audience, comprised of both in house leaders and diverse representatives of the Chicago area law firms which have been certified under the Mansfield Rule, many of whom were newer partners. (Check out Diversity Lab’s website if you want to learn more about the Mansfield Rule). I’ve been asked for an encore, so here are some of the thoughts that I shared.
First, it is critical that you, as an outside law firm partner, be a trusted business partner to your clients.
Learn our business, our goals and our strategy. This tip is simple enough, but in the rush of daily work, often overlooked. The most elegant legal solution is the wrong one if it does not match our internal goals. Your goal is be an extension of the internal legal team, not just an outside vendor. If all you do is bill your time for a specific project, then you are an outside vendor. In today’s economy, outside vendors are one of the first expenses to be cut.
Be proactive. Many in-house attorneys are generalists. We have good judgment and solid legal experience, but we do not have the level of expertise brought by outside counsel. If you see a problem, speak with us about it, even if it is outside of the scope of your engagement. Be honest with us if a particular matter is outside of the scope of your firm’s expertise, or if the matter does not actually require legal representation, even if that means your firm loses this particular piece of business. The practice of law is one area where we can truly all rise together – think about how you can help us be better in business and as leaders.
Good communication is also key, so the next two tips fall under that rubric.
No surprises, ever. In the business world, we need to be able to plan. Surprises, even good surprises, are not viewed positively. Agree up front on frequency of communication for a matter, and if something significant changes, let us know right away. Just for one moment, put yourself in the shoes of the in-house attorney who has just reported to senior management that a legal matter will take several months to resolve, not knowing that you reached conceptual settlement yesterday. Professionally embarrassing, to say the least. And if something goes wrong, tell us right away so that we can work together toward a solution.
Stay top of mind (in a not-annoying way). As in-house counsel, we want to get to know you and to develop relationships with you. Invite us to conferences and continuing legal education (“CLE”) programs. Visit our offices to provide training or attend meetings. Ask if we would like to be added to your distribution list for newsletters or articles. Connect with those of us who are active on LinkedIn, and follow our posts and activities. If you meet us at an event, follow up. And if your firm sponsored the event, think of it as your duty to follow up.
With all of this remember the parenthetical above – please do not be annoying. Remember that we are very busy. We cannot often take time away from our day job to meet you for a business development lunch. If you leave messages, be clear about the purpose of your call. If our offices are not in a city center, think about the travel time before asking us to events downtown or ask us if the travel time is an issue. If we consistently decline invitations to box seats at sporting events or dinners at upper end restaurants, ask whether other activities would be more welcome. For example, as someone who wore the compliance officer hat as well as the general counsel hat, I felt comfortable accepting invitations to CLE programs, but accepting the box seats might have appeared improper to others within my organization.
For the next tip, this wouldn’t be #CallingonChristine if I didn’t include thoughts on the importance of taking care of yourself.
Create a personal, living development plan. I have mentioned before that time is your most valuable commodity. Take the time each day to step away from the laptop (cell phone/Ipad/Apple watch). Take a walk. Be physically active. Enjoy nature. Think about what brings you joy? How do you want to give back to the world? Who are you? Have you left parts of yourself behind? Who do you want to be? Create a personal development plan that allows you to become a better lawyer, leader and person. This is not your annual performance review development plan. This is something that is just for you. It will include professional development, as well as personal growth. As you work on your personal development plan and update it each month, adopt a curious, continuous learning mindset. What do I want to learn next? How do I need to grow? And throughout it all, how do your family and friends fit in?
My last three tips fall under the rubric of telling your own story and embracing diversity.
Be proud of your story, and help others tell their stories. No matter our background, our economic circumstances, the color of our skin, our religious beliefs, or our age, we all have a story to tell. Tell your authentic story and listen deeply to the stories of others. Be passionate. Be an agent of change. Do not hide who you are. As you grow in your career, mentor others and network with people who are different from you for the joy of getting to know them better. Importantly, understand that people will make mistakes. People will say or do things that you do not understand or that you find hurtful (or maybe hateful). Do not immediately assume a negative intention. Rather, once you have stepped away from the emotion of the moment, consider whether the situation might have been due to ignorance or misunderstanding, and whether it might be a learning moment for all involved. Sometimes it is not. But sometimes, a mistake is just a mistake. The ability to make mistakes and to learn from them will be an ever more critical skill in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) space as we all try to tell our honest and authentic stories and to listen better to the stories of others.
Embrace diversity, but recognize commonalities. As a follow-on to Tip 7, find ways to network with clients that are true to your story. Being professional does not mean that we all have to enjoy the same things, wear our hair the same way, or try to conform to a single image. As a relationship partner, you are going to be most successful in developing clients when you interact with the client from a point of authenticity. When I was an associate in BigLaw, we were advised to learn to golf. Surprise – not all clients golf. As you seek to develop a relationship with us as potential clients, play to your strengths. Are you involved in charity organizations or social causes? Are you an athlete? Are you a reader, a writer or a thinker? You might be surprised at how much we have in common. And never be afraid to talk to us about diversity and inclusion. Even if your firm is not yet mature in the D&I space, be open about what the firm is doing to improve.
Bring others up with you. We all have the image in our head of the person who made it to the top, and then pulled the ladder up. But it is a bit more complex. Bringing others up is a two way relationship. If you have made it, ask others how you can help them. Those being helped, make sure that you are standing on your own two feet and taking personal responsibility for your career growth.
Never, ever give up! Probably the most important tip of all as we each navigate the complex world of our career and our relationships. No person and no situation can diminish your value as a person and a professional.