How to build a strong relationship with your business – an interview with Clare Woolley

Build a strong relationship between the in-house legal team and the businessLawyers can have a reputation for being overly risk-averse. Building good relationships with business colleagues to gain respect is core to overcoming this perception. Sophie Gould talks to Clare Woolley, Head of Legal at RAC, about how she sold the value of her team to the business and established a relationship that recognised the contribution lawyers make in a commercial environment.

 

Tell us a bit about your background and career to date …

I started off my career in private practice after qualifying into a commercial contracts role. I did a whole range of project work and large commercial contracts across the public and private sector and got a broad range of experience working for high profile clients.

At 6 years’ PQE, I’d been on secondments with companies and was getting to the stage where I felt frustrated in private practice. What I’d really enjoyed about my secondments was getting under the skin of commercial deals. In private practice, you don’t see how a project comes into being or the commercial drivers, and you don’t see what happens to it afterwards. It felt like the right time to make a move in-house. I joined RAC in 2012.

How is the RAC legal team structured?

The team operates with a relatively flat structure. The team consists of  eight lawyers, a contracts manager and PA. Whilst we have broad areas that we tend to focus on, we all do work across the business. If a person only deals with one area it can lead to tunnel vision and they won’t see the impact of one division's actions on other divisions. A key way that we add value to the business is to make sure that where there are synergies or potential conflicts, we’re identifying those and bringing them together.

Each person in the team has a direct relationship with a director on the board and this gives them visibility at board level. Not only is this visibility important for career progression, but it gives a sense of ownership of an area. Ultimately, they are the point of contact if there are any issues that need escalating. They have a monthly one-to-one with the director and are responsible for that overall relationship. It gives an invaluable insight into what makes directors tick as well as what’s actually happening on directors’ desks.

How important is it to sell yourself to the business and gain their respect? How do you do it?

The RAC legal team was a brand new team as when RAC was bought out of Aviva the legal team remained with Aviva.

Initially, the business wasn’t engaging with the legal team at all so we embarked on a PR/charm-offensive exercise. We started one-to-one meetings at board and “head of” level and also got a standing invite to attended team meetings to just sit and listen to what was going on around the business. Even though we now do not struggle to get engagement from the business we try to maintain these relationships. This helps us greatly because we have found that nine times out of ten, the things that are going to cause problems in the business are not the things that someone's approached you for advice about where they know there is a legal issue, it's the things that happening where people have not realised that there is a potential legal hurdle to overcome. The only way you get to know about them is by building relationships across all levels and finding out what people are doing on a day-to-day basis. This allows you to proactively trouble-shoot.

The ethos of the team is to be “starter-finishers”. It doesn’t matter whether something is our job or not, we need to get the right result for the business whatever it takes. It is also a useful tool for building your own value and brand within the business. By going above and beyond in terms of doing things that aren’t necessarily your job, it makes people realise that lawyers are not barriers or “business prevention”and can be a useful part of a commercial team. This really helps you get your foot in the door and build relationships of trust. Once they start getting used to working with you and see that you’re trying to put things together rather than pull things apart, people are much more open to engaging with you.

Gaining respect and trust is part of building a strong relationship and it encourages people to keep you engaged and updated on their plans and priorities. This allows you to get involved in conversations and issues much earlier and avoids the legal team being put in the position of slowing projects down by raising issues at the last minute.

It can be a difficult battle to win because lawyers have a reputation for being quite risk-averse. So you need to be very conscious of making sure you’re being constructive in the feedback you give people. When you raise an issue, try to illustrate that you understand the commercial challenges around it and always present a potential solution (or preferably a range of potential solutions) at the same time wherever possible. It is easy to draw a line and give legal advice without trying to understand the commercial impact that your advice might have and to expect the commercial team to create the solutions. In my view, the real privilege of working in-house is that you have the tools at your disposal to be able to understand the commercial context and help to shape the commercial solutions. Not only is that the way to gain respect but it also makes your own job more interesting! Some of the best relationships are where you’re no longer “just” a lawyer, you’re part of the commercial team.

How do you balance the need to sell yourself to the business versus not taking on everything and becoming overwhelmed as a team?

It's a real challenge and an ongoing one. Once we'd got over the first year of just getting people to engage with us, we very quickly found ourselves completely drowning in legal work and being restricted to being very reactive. We had to question whether all the things we were doing were really adding value to the business. When we analysed how we spent our time, we found that time spent relationship building was actually more valuable than some of the times when we were reviewing a contract on e.g. a low value of the shelf software contract that we weren’t going to be able to negotiate anyway. It makes you ask: where am I using my time effectively? What difference does what I’m doing make to the business? Work out how much of your time a task justifies and be strict with yourself about only spending that amount of time on it. If it is a very low value/risk piece of work, then give yourself half an hour and whatever you’ve done at the end of that, it's done, don’t play with it. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

You need to find a risk appetite for your own legal team. You might decide that if it's a medium to low value, low risk contract, you only look for the top five issues, address those and leave the rest.

Regardless of how messy something looks, don’t spend huge amounts of time on a contract that’s not very important to the business. Learning to let things go and accept that things aren’t perfect is very counter intuitive for lawyers. It probably isn’t the right thing for trainees and very junior lawyers to do when they are initially learning as you do need to learn how to do things correctly, but, ultimately, it is the right thing for a busy in-house team. When we are supervising trainees we have a two-stage approach: firstly what you would do in a perfect world, then secondly what we will actually do in our imperfect world which is often the minimum amount required to protect the business leaving aside a lot of “nice to haves”.

 

 

 

 

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