Business and law — it’s a marriage that has been in counseling for … well, forever. In the end, they will always stay together. Business and law are so intertwined that separating them is like decoupling french fries and ketchup or soap and water. Because there’s no one without the other, modern general counsels who can balance both business and legal issues have plenty of opportunities to shine.
Sarah Feingold, a co-founder of The Fourth Floor and former General Counsel of Etsy, correctly points out that business issues become abundant in transitions. For example, a striking difference between practicing at a law firm and in-house is how much more rooted in business each decision is. This, of course, makes sense — after all, in-house, you are so much closer to a business.
Feingold further points out that business issues are abundant at start-ups. When you navigate novel issues without a blueprint, business realities are a good place to start. They can certainly frame the challenges and define successes.
Similarly, conflict management often requires navigating and understanding business realities and priorities. Managing yourself, your responses, and timing often makes the difference between managed and mismanaged conflict. As Feingold pointed out, you can always dial up the intensity when you start from a nice and civil place. However, it is very hard to go the other way around.
Of course, crises and sudden changes to the status quo also provide opportunities for a business/law marriage to thrive. As in-house counsel, you can have an unparalleled impact on your legal department, your company, and ultimately the world if you can master navigating the business and law worlds simultaneously.
For example, numerous legal leaders are coaching and supporting members of their departments to serve their clients without interruptions and in considering the “new normal.” After all, how does one assess various business and legal risks when only uncertainty is certain?
As companies rethink the value of safety, predictability, and business continuity, in-house counsel will see opportunities to participate in the reconstruction efforts. To be clear, I am deliberately not using the word “recovery” because the COVID-19 experience has fundamentally shaken our assumptions and beliefs. Any sense of “recovery” and “back to normal” will be impossible for affected nations, companies, and individuals; instead, there will be a period of “reconstruction,” “redesign,” and “rebuilding.” During this period, savvy, modern general counsels, and in-house counsels who can seamlessly navigate business and legal issues will see plenty of opportunities to shine.
This opportunity to “reconstruct,” “redesign,” and “rebuild” is a rare one, and we all should make the most of it. Ultimately, many in-house lawyers are either decision-makers or influencers. As such, you will have an opportunity not only to ask what’s good for me, for my department, and my company, you will also have an opportunity to ask: What is good for the world? What is good for all of us? What is sustainable? What is the right thing to do? How can I make things better? Ultimately, how can I make a positive impact.
The COVID-19 crisis has rocked our world to its core. The suffering, fear, and uncertainty so many of us are feeling have made clear that things will never be the same, and certain underlying vulnerabilities must be addressed. However, it’s still too early to know what those changes look like. Different sectors will have different ideas. It will be up to forward-thinking general counsels to listen to those conversations and bring different sectors — most importantly, businesses and law — into the conversation. They will be the ones to chart the road ahead.
Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. She founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can follow Olga on Twitter @olgavmack.
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