What does Legal do exactly? An elevator pitch.

As a junior in-house lawyer, I worked for a company that lost its way a little. Part of the recovery plan was the appointment of a new COO, a well known hatchet man who specialized in removing costs. Our GC was desperately keen that this new COO should meet the Legal team, so he summoned us from around the world to a meeting at global HQ, just outside Boston.

For some reason known only to the GC, all 80 of us we were made to line up, like wedding guests, in order to shake the COO's hand as we entered the conference room. By the time I reached the front, about 40 people had already passed. I heard him say "Gee, there sure are a lot of you guys". Several of us winced. I couldn't help responding "We're very cheap" and grinning at him. It was the best I could do at the time, but it's hardly a sales pitch.   

More recently, one of our business leaders wandered up to one of my team and asked "How does your work improve the experience of our customers" to be met with the reply "I'm not sure it does". Oh dear.

It's supposed to be axiomatic in business that everyone should have an "elevator pitch", which is what you'd say if you found yourself in the lift with one of your Board members for two minutes and they asked "what do you do for the company?". You can read a short description of an 
elevator pitch at this link http://bit.ly/ej1oULIt's amazing how many in-house lawyers, even some GCs, when asked what their function does, cannot give a crisp reply.

Whether you work in-house or out-house, if you think this doesn't apply to you, then let me contradict you. Every senior management team has a responsibility to remove unnecessary cost from its business, to make the company healthier and more successful for everyone else. So, if you don't know and cannot explain how your work drives the company's top or bottom line, you can expect to be cut. In fact you can't complain when you are. That's how companies are run.

Fortunately, Legal departments and the out-housers they use are often insulated from their failure to have a snappy explanation of what they do by the fact that their business leaders often "hate lawyers" but "love Bob / Brenda" (delete as appropriate), the individual lawyer they actually work with. 
That's helpful, but if you lead a Legal function, or aspire to, that isn't going to be good enough. You'll need a crisp explanation of what Legal does. Here's a short attempt ...

"Well Mrs Board Member, I'm glad you asked me that. Legal's role breaks down into six basic

First, we help the business grow
, which 
includes everything from commercial contracts, to mergers, joint ventures, acquisitions and disposals, as well as intellectual property protection. In some cases, we're involved in advocacy to governments.

Second, we keep the business and its employees out of trouble, 
which includes creating policies around areas of risk, especially non-financial risk, such as conflicts of interest, insider trading, bribery, competition law, then embedding processes to prevent these risks, detecting violations and responding to them appropriately.

Third, we manage litigation
, which should be obvious, since preventing, defending, initiating and prosecuting litigation is a core competence of lawyers.

Fourth, we ensure regulatory compliance,
which varies a lot between organizations, but includes the maintenance of a group's subsidiary entity structures and, in a listed company, disclosure and transparency requirements.

Fifth, we partner with other functions 
which generate legal issues, including providing employment advice to HR, advising Tax and Treasury and supporting functions like Procurement and Real Estate.

Sixth and finally, we meet our own commitments as a function
, which includes development of talent inside the department, budget planning, resourcing and managing the panel of external legal advisers.

If you wanted all that in one phrase, Legal's role is to
 help you grow faster, sustainably, with fewer mistakesOh look, this is my floor. Well that was it in a nutshell. I hope that was helpful."

This is certainly not supposed to be exhaustive and no doubt you can throw critique at it. The emphasis would need to vary a lot in different companies. 
In my own Legal department, I have a spider diagram which breaks each of these down in some detail. Nobody seems to like it much, except me. But, since I run the department, we persist with it.

My core point is not whether this elevator pitch is right or not. It's whether you have one at all. I think you should.

Many of the lawyers amongst you be thinking that this is a clear case of spin over substance and nothing counts like grinding out the work. I agree substance is what matters, but that doesn't include the endless grind that lawyers seem to fall into. Next time, I'm going to write on "It's your job to ignore thousands of e-mails".


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