Q: “I’m an in-house counsel for a mid-market company. I am getting a lot of calls from management asking my opinion on various legal issues. I’m expected to be an expert and a leader, but I don’t know anything more than anyone else when it comes to what’s next. How, as business owners, are you living in that space, especially as lawyers where you are expected to know all the answers?”
May 19, 2020
Answered by Gary I. Blackman
That's a great question. I'm the General Counsel of my firm as well. For many psychological reasons (too deep to talk about here), there's nothing harder for a lawyer to do than speak the words: "I don't know. Let me get back to you." But right now, our world is changing by the minute. Best practices and regulatory guidance can change by the hour. And whatever business challenges we are facing are only exacerbated by the underlying threats to our health and safety. As such, our clients (in your case, your company, in my case, my firm and our clients), are stressed and starved for information. They are calling asking what to do in real-time about business issues never before confronted and legal issues never before adjudicated by the courts. You want to be helpful. You want to reduce your client’s anxieties. So it is tempting to hip shoot, to give advice that will make your client feel better. So what to do?
We are lawyers and business counselors. And helping your company evaluate risk in the face of uncertainty is your most valuable contribution. So we suggest that you do what we do:
- First, slow down and take a breath. You are your company's calm in the storm. Your job is to (try to) not be emotionally triggered.
- Evaluate the time requirements of the "ask." Is this an immediate issue or something you can spend some time thinking about?
- Determine whether the issue is a legal or business one.
- If it's a legal issue, is it novel? Have the courts in Illinois or elsewhere addressed it? Given how quickly problems are arising, Google is not a bad place to start.
- If it's a business issue, consider the risks/benefits, notwithstanding the limited information you have. Not making decisions is not an option.
- Collaborate and seek out others' opinions. There is no shame in asking what others are doing. Most everyone is in the same boat (I refrained from a Titanic analogy).
- Give your best analysis in as honest and transparent a way possible, making sure your company understands that your advice is limited by the unprecedented nature of events.
- Lastly, read, read, read. Knowing the issues of the day and what questions to ask is half the battle.
You don't always need to know all the answers. But you do need to know the questions to ask, how to find the answers, and how to best communicate to your company. Good luck!