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Chris LoCurto

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July 14, 2011

Lawyers who….serve?!?!

During the most recent EntreLeadership event I taught in Nashville, I had the great opportunity to spend some time with David Bearden. David is the Senior Vice President and General Counsel for POET, which means that he runs their in-house legal team.

David shared with me that most companies have a love-hate relationship with their in-house lawyers. The reason? They are considered nothing more than an expense. It would be great if the company would come to the legal team on the front side of projects. But they don’t because most legal teams are difficult to work with and overly detailed. David’s frustration was knowing that this gap between the company and legal team could be closed considerably, but how?

We then discussed what it would be like if the legal team wasn’t reactionary. What if the team spent a good portion of their time looking for ways to serve that add value to their company? What if they researched the initiatives on the table and found weakness and trouble zones? And all this without being viewed as negative and nit-picky. Instead, what if they could be seen as…entrepreneurs? What would that look like?

At a break, David pulled me aside and said, “You really messed me up with the whole thing about my team being entrepreneurs that serve the company.” Wow! How cool is that?! And in most of the legal world, quite oxymoronic. But that’s what makes David so successful. He’s not sitting on his thumbs waiting for the next issue.

Below is an email that I received from David a week after the event:

I was reviewing my EntreLeadership materials today and thought I would send you a quick note to touch base and thank you for the excellent job you did presenting the course materials.  I really enjoyed your transparency and passion as you used examples from your own experiences to teach the lessons.  I am also very appreciative of your willingness to visit with me during your breaks in order to brainstorm how these principles apply to an in-house support team like POET’s legal team.

Over the past several months (before my attendance at EntreLeadership), I have had our team focused on clarifying its mission, vision and differentiated value proposition for our “customers,” the POET business team.  Our philosophy is to think like a “business within the business” that competes against the marketplace of external law firms, any one of whom our customers could easily call by picking up the yellow pages. 

Attending the course helped me to confirm that we are on the right track, and the top three lessons that I am working to incorporate happen to be the first few: “EntreLeadership Defined,” “Dreams, Visions and Goal Setting,” and “Time Management & Organization,”  though our primary focus is on vision and goal setting.

I’ll keep you posted as things develop, but at a high level, we’re putting some meat on the bones of becoming “the premier legal department among companies our size.”  I must admit, though, that while that sounds inspiring, I’m not convinced that being “the best” is a viable strategy, and I’ll be raising the thought next week with our team that to truly win, we need to differentiate ourselves in such a way that we’re not “the best” – we’re “the only.” 

In my judgment, most in-house law departments are more compliance-oriented than they are entrepreneurial, and all face the obstacle that you and I discussed—that financial reporting systems treat us as an expense, providing no foundation for demonstrating the value created by enhancing our capabilities.  If our lawyers can become EntreLeaders, I believe we and our business team will start thinking and communicating in terms of value added rather than expense reduced.  We’ll see where it goes.

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m pretty sure that POET is going to have their world rocked by this team! Imagine how much more confident the “customer” will be working on new initiatives knowing their competent, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking legal team is chomping at the bit to get in there and help their company win!

Question: What areas can you make your team more valuable to the “customer?”

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  • http://twitter.com/cyvers Jon Sievers

    Your article really hit close to home for me, Chris. I recently joined an agricultural manufacturing company as its first inhouse counsel. I’ve really struggled with applying the lessons from EntreLeadership to my position. Many times it seems like I am the last stop in the business process and I am only there to work out the “details”.

    Like your article and David’s comment mentions, there is a better way. It is to become a proactive business unit that adds value and communicates that value. Because this a nebulous concept, I am eager to see how David goes about it. I have no doubt that he will succeed. So if you are reading this David, thanks for your insight and please be sure to send updates to Chris.

    • http://Chrislocurto.com Chris LoCurto

      I am looking forward to the updates as well. Let me say that David is definitely the guy to do it!

  • http://poet.com David Bearden

    AccuContrive,

    Thanks for the nice compliment. I sincerely appreciate it.

    This may be a nit and we’re actually thinking the same way, but I have a little difficulty with the point that “[l]awyers and IT team members cannot be measured.” I happen to think that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. To be sure, there is a much more objective way to measure bottom-line contributions by the sales team, but we on the service side can measure things related to our service, such as number of help calls handled, timeliness of response, customer satisfaction, etc. What I’m still grappling with–but convinced it can be done–is how to more directly measure the value added to the bottom line. When we figure that out, and begin communicating with our business leads along these lines, it will be a breakthrough.

    • http://twitter.com/AccuContrive AccuContrive

      David,

      Yes, you’re right. However, with IT team members having a list of Feature Request List that will keep them busy for the next century, and with the technology change pace going on, it gets a real challenge to reach the breakthrough you’re talking about.

      I could understand the possibility of measuring specific areas, like System Performance or Web Performance, but I cannot foresee reliable measuring IT Team Performance. Actually, there are only 2 measures known to me for an IT Team: 1) Uptime 2) System\Web Performance…

      If one day you figure out something, please share your wisdom with the world! :)

      • Eric Lackey

        Hey Guys, good conversation. I wanted to chip in here. I’m the Director of IT at Dave Ramsey’s office. I think there is a natural mindset that IT is the offensive lineman who is only noticed when he allows a sack or in this case forgets to backup the data. I’ve worked in IT departments for a few different companies and that is normally the feeling among IT staff. The other difficulty is that IT is not an assembly line where everyone is doing the same job. There are many different jobs and skill sets within IT so you can’t always expect one team member to build a system or fix a problem as fast as another.

        There are couple of ways that we measure performance at Lampo IT. One is just using standard metrics which you might be doing already. How fast are we responding to issues? How quickly are issues being resolved? How fast are we implementing new features? The other thing we measure is the value that we are bringing to the company. It is easy to sit back in IT and say “I can’t believe they’re storing all of that in an Excel spreadsheet!” or “I could write a script that saves that person 10 hours a week in about 15 minutes”. In many IT departments that is as far as it goes, because there is a disconnect between IT and the business side. The key is to actually to do it. Go to the business leaders and tell them what you want to do and tell them the value your team can bring them. Before you start, get a baseline from the business side so that you know how much time you actually do save them. Keep those “wins” on a scorecard and get some brag-time in on your team.

        One more thing. I think in large companies especially, IT has very little say over what projects are top priority. Here, we have flexibility to work on projects that I think will benefit the bottom line or add efficiencies across the company the quickest . In other words we have permission to go after the low-hanging fruit. If you can build that type of trust between the business and IT side, it can be very beneficial.

        • http://twitter.com/AccuContrive AccuContrive

          Eric,

          I’d really love to get a clue how the following measures can be done:
          1. “How quickly are issues being resolved?” – I mean, sometimes it takes a week [e.g. when QA is required], sometimes 2 minutes. How does an average of these 2 tell you something?
          2. “How fast are we implementing new features?” – same applies here; feature#1 might take a month [like a new Single Page Checkout], while feature#2 can take 30 minutes [like adding another social widget on your pages]…

          All the rest I could get, but not the aforementioned 2 ones [which are actually the ones that cause the most frustration from the business side when they do not happen yesterday…].

          Could you share from your experience? if you were so lucky getting the IT Director in Dave’s business it’s inevitable that everyone reading this will get smarter from your input :)

          In any event, thanks a ton for your insights!

          – AccuContrive

          • Eric Lackey

            You’re correct that these two things are difficult to measure. In IT, you’re never going to have a perfect metric like a sales adviser quota, but I think some level of metrics can be done. If the business is consistently frustrated, then they probably either don’t trust the time & cost estimates provided by IT or they haven’t been told.

            In my opinion, two things have to happen. First, the business side has to trust your time and cost estimates. If you tell them that you can do something in 5 days and it takes 15 days or if you tell them 5 days and it takes an hour, they won’t trust your estimate as much next time. Second, the business has to understand that in IT, almost nothing goes as planned. The 30 lines of code that you estimated 30 minutes will end up taking 3 days. I’ve worked with a lot of smart technology people and I don’t know one that is always accurate at predicting how long a project or issue will take to complete.

            If that understanding is there, then you can begin to work on a metric where IT is graded based on how accurate you are in your estimates. It will be like your first budget when you start – totally wrong. But, over time, your estimates will improve. The business will begin to trust your estimates more because they can see that this metric has improved over time. We use a system called project/issue tracking system named Jira that has some of this functionality built in and can give you an estimation accuracy score based on specific categories of issues.

  • http://lgthaxton.wordpress.com Louise Thaxton

    Thanks for this blog, Chris – it is something I have been working on with our team ….to create a culture of serving each other – not ONLY our clients! Each member of the team should operate with a spirit of service – to be willing to step up and SERVE one another.

    A “former” employee (with emphasis on the “former”) once accused me of “caring” more about the team than the client. At that point I told her I DID care about the client – but I also cared about the TEAM. If the team went down or under – then we could not serve ANYONE! (Much like the airlines tell us to grab the air mask for ourselves so we are equipped to help the person beside us)

    The bottom line – as a team, we should strive to bring value each day to EACH OTHER – not just to the outside world – the clients. When we do that – everybody wins.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • http://Chrislocurto.com Chris LoCurto

      That’s awesome. Next time someone compares team to clients, let them know that your team members are your clients as well!!

      Good stuff!!

  • http://twitter.com/AccuContrive AccuContrive

    I see it this way: every department that cannot be “measured” or “quantified” suffers from what a legal department suffers: They are considered nothing more than an expense. I’m a Tech Lead, and I see the IT department suffers from this as well. Warehouse runners, Buyers, Salesmen and Customer Service representatives can be measured. Lawyers and IT team members cannot be measured. In other words: Warehouse runners, Buyers, Salesmen and Customer Service representatives can be measured by their outcome, while lawyers and IT people can best be measured [if at all] by PREVENTING outcome, which is [in the IT example] ensuring that websites and backend systems are up and running 99.99% of the time, and this cannot be measured. Which leads us to this conclusion: “The easier it is to quantity the less it’s worth”.

    In any event, thanks for this brilliant post! Yes, I can clearly differentiate in our department between people who act proactively, acting as servants to the company, and other [most!] people who are just doing their J.O.B. reactively. By the way, somehow this difference is recognizable on their paychecks as well :)

    David, You sound to be a real leader. Good luck!

    • http://Chrislocurto.com Chris LoCurto

      Fantastic point in most companies. But I’m going to push back a little. (Cause that’s allowed on my blog. :-)) You are so correct that the other departments are easy to measure due to what we consider to be tangible outcomes. If someone sells something, we see it and recognize that they made a contribution. But with IT, you’re viewed as someone who just fixes things when they go wrong. That’s why it’s absolutely VITAL for leadership to explain just how each department is making a difference on the bottom line. For instance, we will share in our staff meeting how well the IT team has served our company by keeping the systems working so well that we can do what we need to. That they stayed all night to complete an upgrade on our system that will help us to move at a faster rate. And one that blew the team away, was when they discovered a system to use in our shipping department that saves us $1500 A DAY! That money goes straight to our bottom line, which ends up in profit-sharing. The team went ballistic in staff meeting over that.

      So I think it takes great leaders, who are very intentional about communicating the successes on EVERY team in the building. Does that make sense?

      Thanks for such a great comment!

  • http://ericspeir.com/ Eric Speir

    I chuckled when I first read this post. Lawyers who serve sound funny. I graduated with my M.Div from Regent University and the School of Divinity had a running joke with the School of Law. We would often joke that it was a oxymoron to be a “Christian Lawyer.” In any case, this same lesson applies to all departments in a business or ministry. How can we learn to serve the team rather than seeing ourselves as a necessary evil? Great thoughts today!

    • http://Chrislocurto.com Chris LoCurto

      The crazy thing is that is a view that is shared by so many. The funny thing, and David can correct me if I’m wrong, but lawyers WERE Christian initially. When issues went to court, you had to prove that your situation was backed by Biblical mandate. It wasn’t until some dork at Harvard, who wasn’t a Christian, set precedence on a case NOT using the Bible. From that point on, it’s been a different legal system. Or so I’ve heard. :-)

      That’s why it’s refreshing to find someone like David. Kinda gives a person hope. He and his team will set an example for all lawyers!

  • http://poet.com David Bearden

    Thanks for the kind remark, Joel. I agree that thinking of a staff office as a value center would be more inspiring. I once held a in-house legal position within an agency in the U.S. government, where the differences between “staff” and “line” offices are quite distinct. Whenever an attorney left a legal position to accept an operational role in a line office, my colleagues would comment that we would never see that attorney return to the team to practice law again. Had the law department had a culture of “value creators,” we might not have seen those types of departures.

    At least from my perspective, I don’t think it is terribly difficult to find ways to add value IF one takes the time to proactively think about it. Where the challenge arises is quantifying and communicating that value.

  • http://joelfortner.wordpress.com Joel Fortner

    All “staff” office leaders within organizations should take this to heart! This is awesome! Whether it’s legal, HR or PR, leaders of staff offices should approach their role this way. So often staff offices wait for tasks from top leadership or simply work laterally. Instead, treat your office like a value center, like another enterprise. It’s definitely more inspiring than waiting on tasks and responding for a living. Chris, have you written about the way Lampo is set up?

    • http://Chrislocurto.com Chris LoCurto

      I haven’t. How would you like to see that? Leave the cave?