Adding Value as In-House Counsel: Principle 2

Adding Value as In-House Counsel: Principle 2
Posted by   Jason Karp Feb 13, 2023

Let’s dive into the second installment of my 4-part series on how in-house attorneys can demonstrate true value within an organization by following 4 universal principles. In part one, we explored the first, and perhaps most important, principle: know your client’s business. Next, we will review principle 2: “understand the real question being asked.”

Principle 2: Understand the Real Question Being Asked

Legal language can be complex, circuitous and, at times, frustrating for clients. When asking questions, clients may not always fully understand, or even realize, the real legal issues that are at play. Because clients communicate in a way that is different from how attorneys analyze the law, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to “decode” a client’s questions before responding in order to avoid frustration and miscommunication. In other words, a lawyer must work to understand the real question being asked by a client.

To accomplish, an in-house lawyer should:

  1. Listen closely
    Just listen . . .don’t speak. Some of the best advice I ever received in my career was “Talk Less, Listen More.” As lawyers, we are trained to solve problems; and sometimes, we jump in to help fix an issue before fully understanding a client’s need. This can backfire, however, especially if a client uses words that are not 100% accurate or doesn’t fully understand the legal implications of the question. By listening carefully, a lawyer is more likely to zero in on the real question being asked, as opposed to taking the client’s words at face value.
  2. Consider context
    In addition to active listening, a lawyer should also seek to understand the context in which a client’s question is being asked. Besides knowing the business, a lawyer should consider any personal, financial, operational or other biases a client may have which could influence their question. This context is best gleaned by asking relevant follow-up questions to better understand the situation and ensure that the real issue is being addressed.
  3. Avoid assumptions
    It can be easy to make assumptions about a client’s need based on previous experiences advising similar clients or even just personal biases. However, a lawyer should focus on what the client is trying to solve (operational, financial or otherwise), as well as the legal implications of such issue, without allowing his or her own biases to steer the analysis. 
  4. Keep it simple
    When communicating with clients, a lawyer should always strive to be transparent and clear. Using plain, accessible language (as opposed to legalese) and offering relatable, real life examples are both effective ways to approach a client’s question and ensure the right issue has been identified. This also helps with building trust.

Here’s an example of how this might play out. An in-house lawyer is contacted by HR to discuss a former employee who has been trying to recruit current employees in violation of company policy and her employment agreement. Although HR is rightly concerned about the non-solicitation violation, by listening closely and asking several follow-up questions, the lawyer uncovers an internal control issue posing an even greater risk to company – that is, the former employee still has access to her company email account and has been using it to communicate with current employees. By taking time to understand the full scope of the situation, rather than accepting at face value what HR shared, the lawyer is able to resolve both the company’s legal and operational issues.

To sum up, lawyers need to identify the real issues being presented by their clients in order to provide effective and efficient legal and business advice. Doing so requires strong, active listening, clear communication skills, an understanding of the context, an open mind, and transparency. With these skills in hand, a lawyer is more likely to become a trusted advisor, helping clients achieve their goals and building a strong lawyer-client relationship in the process.

For more insight on how in-house lawyers can add value to their organization, stay tuned for posts 3 & 4 coming later this week. In the meantime, if you have any questions , please contact Jason Karp at [email protected] or 571-233-3829.

Jason Karp is a Member of our New York-area team with more than 30 years of experience in the telecom, technology, media, XaaS, and public safety industries. Jason works with businesses of all sizes, handling a wide range of complex commercial and corporate transactions, as well as business operations and market strategy, corporate governance, compliance program development and implementation, and regulatory and policy advocacy and strategy. He also serves as Chief Legal and Human Capital Officer for Affinaquest.

This publication should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances not an offer to represent you. It is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your attorney concerning any particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have. Pursuant to applicable rules of professional conduct, portions of this publication may constitute Attorney Advertising.

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