What Law School Didn’t Teach You: Observations from ACC’s Corporate Counsel University

May 20, 2015

meeting boardroom professionalsAsk any lawyer what “IRAC” means, and s/he will instinctively recite this law school mantra: Issue.  Rule.  Analysis.  Conclusion.  Identify the multitude of issue(s) that are present in a fact pattern; identify the applicable rules or regulations; analyze the respective facts against said rules; and voila— a legal conclusion. Law school teaches you many things, including how to deploy IRAC in practice.  But after recently attending 2015 ACC Corporate Counsel University, I was reminded of the host of non-legal practice skills that are absent in law school curriculum, but essential to be effective in the corporate counsel practice.

The recent ACC CLO Survey discussed the need for GCs to develop these skills throughout the department.  According to the survey, the most desired skills included “executive presence and business management, with communication and listening and project management rounding out the list.” And based on the advice provided many panelists throughout sessions at CCU, it was these non-technical-not-taught-in-law-school skills that provoked much discussion at CCU.  Here were a few pearls words of wisdom shared on CCU’s first day:

  • This is not (moot) court. Many corporate counsel hail from litigation backgrounds and are deft at being fierce advocates in a trial setting.  Many CCU panelists discussed the importance of knowing your audience for effective communication: the C-Suite is not a jury, so understanding how to present clearly and succinctly to executives is important.  Also, the panelists discussed that the most powerful communication skill that corporate counsel must possess has nothing to do with presentation or oral advocacy skills—rather, it was the power to listen.
  • Outside counsel as brand ambassadors. While an esteemed panel (ahem, including yours truly) discussed sophisticated practices to retain and manage outside counsel (Ask for an early case assessment! Use alternative fees and budgets!  Use retention guidelines! Audit bills using e-billing!), the panel on Introduction to Corporate Litigation shared some other golden nuggets that went beyond these technical skills.  Marilyn McClure-Demers, Associate General Counsel, Nationwide, sagely advised the attendees to consider more than just expertise when hiring outside counsel. “Your outside counsel are an extension of your company’s brand,” she cautioned the audience.  Your outside attorneys should conduct themselves accordingly and reflect your company’s values and act as brand ambassadors.  As an example, all of the companies represented on the panel value diversity in their workforce, and require that their outside counsel should also reflect this charge.  Several leading legal organizations were mentioned, including diverse minority bars associations like NAPABA (National Asian Pacific American Bar Association) and NAMWOLF (National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms).
  • “Chief Naysayer.” A recent Atlantic Monthly article discussed the bad rap corporate counsel get for leading the “Department of No” (as in: No! We can’t do that. No! We can’t agree to that term. No! That’s too risky.)  More than just identifying risk and spotting isues, corporate counsel must be creative and find a way for the business to “get to yes.”  But there is a balance, during the “Essential Skills for Today’s (and Tomorrow’s) General Counsel” panel, Catherine Potter, Sr. Vice President and GC of Capital Automotive Real Estate Services emphasized that it is critical for a general counsel to demonstrate COURAGE and raise the tough issues to ensure that the company is making ethical business decisions.
  • Financial Statements 101. Many went to law school based on the assumption that “there would be no math”, only to find out that the ability to compute numbers and intelligently read financial statements would be key to their in-house responsibilities.   No worries– all CCU attendees were present at a required Financial Decision-Making for In-house Counsel session, led by an associate professor of accounting from the Boston University Questrom School of Business.