Making friends and influencing people: 10 ways to build your profile as sole counsel

Alexis Alexander offers her top tips for building your profile and getting yourself noticed as a sole counsel in your organisation

An illustrated image of a black silhouette of a person with a briefcase standing in a doorway. The background is red, and the doorway leads to a red tinted night sky.

Joining a business as its first lawyer is both exciting and daunting – a blank canvas to make one’s own, but you’re faced with the challenge of preconceptions of what legal is and how the legal function can help or hinder strategic objectives.

It's a huge opportunity for any sole counsel to build a strong reputation and lasting profile, and it's important to cultivate the right impression with your key commercial stakeholders from the start.

It is critical for your personal success as well as establishing the prominence and respect of the legal function to make friends – so to speak – across the organisation and to ensure your influence at executive level and at the strategic decision-making table.

When I joined Liberis, a global fintech scale-up that provides embedded finance solutions to strategic partners, I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first experience building and leading a legal function.

What was evident from the outset was that as important as providing good legal advice was establishing legal as a business partner, understanding the commercial drivers, the product, the vision and the main stakeholders.

I am proud to say that our recent customer satisfaction survey conducted by legal in December 2020 showed that since its inception in January 2019, we have managed to build a reputation as business facilitators, value creators and core to the company achieving its goals.

There were a number of things that stand out to me that helped me to achieve this.

1. Understand the product and talk the language of business

The business will be much more willing to listen to you if you couch your advice in terms they care about: pursuing this or that method will help the business achieve x or y strategic goal.

If the business uses PowerPoint or Google Sheets, then legal should do the same.

2. Shout about your key wins

Legal doesn’t just spend money; it saves money and even creates value.

Most other departments will create pretty PowerPoint slide decks showing their great results; legal, traditionally, is reserved about shouting about its achievements, which it shouldn’t be.

I created a series of update decks and dashboards reporting on the projects legal has executed on each quarter to help the business achieve its goals.

3. Get yourself invited to core strategic meetings

It's important to position legal as one of the key contributors to strategic decision making.

Don’t worry about appearing ‘pushy’ – you’re not. You just want to help the organisation make the best business decisions.

4. Make friends in the right places

Legal has a reputation of being aloof or arrogant. This is usually not the case, but it's important to get to know your business stakeholders.

Find common ground to talk about, be it kids or football, and make sure legal is seen as a friend of the business.

5. Hold an all-hands session

Most businesses have regular all-hands sessions or something similar. See if it's possible for legal to organise one or present on something to get your name and the function out there.

6. Be commercial

Even if an idea is clearly not sensible, never say “no”. You don’t want a reputation as the “no guy”.

Everything should be positioned more as: “This way won’t be as helpful to the business, but how about this other option?”.

7. Align legal’s objectives with those of the business

As sole counsel, no matter how much you want to pursue a certain project, if it isn’t materially helpful in furthering a business objective or mitigating a key business risk, it should not be a priority.

I have always used KPIs that are tied to high-level business objectives. 

8. Build the team

The end goal is usually to develop the legal function to the point where you need more hires. If you hire right, this will build the team’s reputation.

9. Contribute to industry relevant publications and promote your brand and your business

For example, I continue to contribute to the Lawyer and then post about key articles I write. Often, the business will be delighted to repost.

10. Join a sole counsel/general counsel network

No one knows the struggles better than someone already in your shoes, or who once was.

Your peers can give you tips on how to raise your and the legal function’s profile, and they often hold networking events.

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