How to manage stakeholders as an in-house lawyer
Whilst the company is your official ‘client’, there are other stakeholders that you, as an in-house lawyer, need to engage with and manage well.
In the course of providing legal advice and support, you will interact with a variety of stakeholders that could include the following:
- Project team
- Other functions/departments
- Board of directors
- Alliance partners
- Professional advisers
It is important to recognise who your stakeholders are from the onset, in order to establish positive interactions and build relationships to meet company objectives and protect company interests.
All stakeholders are not the same and all interactions should not be treated in uniformity. Backgrounds, experience and expertise, cultural differences and customs, geographical locations, and language barriers are some factors that should be taken into consideration to avoid any miscommunication or misunderstandings.
I have personally experienced instances of long, arduous email exchanges with stakeholders on straightforward matters, all because of language barriers.
Had this been identified from the beginning, communications could have been carried out by verbal discussions over the phone or virtually, and the matter would have been quickly resolved.
Purpose of engagement?
Determining the purpose of such stakeholder engagement will clearly identify areas of support required from you as the company’s in-house lawyer.
Be it contract review and drafting or dispute resolution, you will be prepared in your approach to engagement to ensure the company’s ultimate needs and objectives are met. Consider if the scope of the engagement is for purposes of:
- establishing/enhancing/repairing relationships
- information sharing
- creating influence/opportunity
- critical analysis
- creating actions/reactions
- risk management
If you are initiating the engagement, it would be good to send a meeting agenda to pre-empt stakeholders so they can also come prepared, to make sure the engagement is more productive and conducive for all in attendance.
It will also assist with time-management and ensure the engagement does not go beyond your agenda. I have found this useful as it sets out a clear structure for preparing and conducting such engagements. It also ensures that meetings do not overrun.
Ask the right questions and get stakeholder views. The engagement should be interactive and collaborative in order to mutually identify objectives and courses of action.
The engagement approach?
The digital age has brought round-the-clock communication to the forefront, allowing us to easily connect with others on a global scale.
Whilst this makes for instant communication, it is not without issues:
- unstable internet connections can disrupt the flow of communications if you find yourself being constantly cut off or unable to connect to calls and speaking at the same time as someone else
- the lack of physical presence between parties could make the engagement less impactful as you will not be able to see non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions and gestures
- digital forms of communication such as instant messaging can seem less personal, which hinders relationship building
- communication in writing could be interpreted differently depending on the use of specific words and sentence structure. This could have an impact especially when you are engaging with stakeholders whose first language is different from yours
Identifying the correct method of communication with stakeholders is important as it can save you valuable time and ensure that your engagement is effective.
Consider whether stakeholders have a preferred method of communication and if any supporting documents need to be prepared and provided – for example, presentation slides, information packs and summaries.
I have found that some stakeholders have a better understanding of matters with the help of visual aids, whilst other prefer face-to-face meetings as the easiest way to digest information.
The key is to ensure that stakeholder engagement is meaningful at all levels, and that your main message has been communicated to them clearly.
The frequency of communication should also be considered. Whilst complex matters, including projects, may require frequent interactions, some matters may require less frequent interactions.
However, do review and reassess requirements and interest levels as it could lead to changes in frequency and scope of the engagement.
Consider that the overall engagement process, and not just the outcome, will be remembered by you and your stakeholders.
A bad experience could create negative preconceptions for future interactions and could affect future project outcomes.
Your stakeholders will have expectations of their interactions with you, whether they or others raise this directly to you or not.
Some stakeholders may view deadlines as important. Others may require frequent updates and hand-holding throughout.
It is important to identify what these expectations are in order to determine how they can be managed appropriately.
Where practicable, consider facilitating meetings with stakeholders and come to a mutual agreement on what is expected from you.
Ultimately, you should be producing value and demonstrating that in the course of providing legal support, you are making progress towards the overall outcome.
As an in-house lawyer, stakeholder engagement and management are inevitable.
If managed effectively, these interactions can be efficient and productive, and can create trust to sustain long-term, good working relationships.