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Out of the Comfort Trap: The Legal Mindset Revolution

By Chiara Lamacchia.


Everybody experiences a comfort trap, at least once in a professional lifetime - each career comes with a whole set of distinctive characters, behaviours, mindset and modus operandi that trap us in a status where we accomplish below our potential. In many cases, this inevitably ends up in stereotypes that are limiting business efficiency, cooperation and innovation.


What about legal professionals like us? The legal function is no stranger to stereotypes. As much as it is painful to hear it out loud, legal is far from being the first coming into mind when talking about business and strategy. No one would ever say “oh cool, let's call legal!”. On the contrary, “how can we delay the call-the-legal moment?”.


Truth is that in many cases the legal mindset is limiting the extent of our power within an organisation. Legal professionals tend to have a very stiff role, compared to other professionals – a certain way of doing things, a certain set of duties and tasks, a certain way of conceiving the profession, a certain intellectual ‘elite’ vibe – these ‘certainties’ created stereotypes around legal professionals. That’s our comfort trap.


If there is one thing that 2020 taught us is that we can expect the unexpected. As legal professionals, we can’t afford to keep ourselves within this comfort trap. Pandemics, plastic pollution, global warming, innovation, sustainability, migration, equality, privacy – these are all a small part of all the challenges that are affecting our lives and markets radically and dramatically. All these urgencies call for legislative interventions that will be introduced more often and faster than ever to be able to cope with drastic changes. The legal function is expected to bring more value to the business. For all these reasons, legal professionals are urged to get out of the comfort trap, shake off stereotypes and switch to a new mindset towards innovation to be able to support and enhance business. How do we ensure to get the right mindset to better sustain business needs in an increasingly challenging world?


In the following paragraphs, we'll explore the most common stereotypes legal professionals are ‘charged’ with and what to do to switch mindset and change the perception of Legal within the business environment.


1. The ‘no’ department

The Legal department has often a reputation of being the ‘no’ department. As Tammy S. Wood [1]: “They are the naysayers who throw rain on every parade, who suck the fun out of every original idea and who point out all the risks but offer no insightful paths on how to get to the reward. The mantra is often heard in the C-Suite: Don’t tell me ‘No,’ show me How!”


However, to be more precise, the legal department would be the ‘it depends’ one. As I always say, ‘it depends’ is the only possible answer that any legal professional can give in any type of situation. ‘No’ is a time-sensitive answer and the safest one when we are unable to assess a situation. We tendentially prefer to have (almost) all possible variables sorted. To evaluate these variables, time is needed, and whenever someone gives us very little time to advise, the answer must be a well-deserved ‘no’. It's ultimately up to the business unit to accept and manage the risk. However, the best practice would be to include the legal function in the conversation since the first brainstorming. This enables us to conduct knock-out researches and provide solutions.


What we as legal professionals need to work on is learning how to win over and inspire the other teams to involve us at a very early stage of decision-making. The most important point is to explain the need for time. Lawyers are trained in the art of anticipating what can go wrong if things are done incorrectly.


We don't seek short-term victories, but rather for long-term success. Therefore, time becomes a critical variable to evaluate the risks and picture the cleverest strategic moves.


2. The trouble-makers

If the axiom is that Legal is the ‘no’ department, the corollary is that every time we don't say no, we still carry with us a whole series of problems that badly affect the pressing business activities. We unveil problems, issues, limits, the ‘but’ of any situation. We kill the vibe of new ideas.


Again, to be more precise, legal professionals are trouble-shooters. The reality is that we develop a peculiar way of thinking – we think defensively. Every time a case is presented to us, we start thinking about how to defend it, looking for floss, traps, measuring risks, forecasting the (un)forecastable.


In business contexts, legal professionals must be able to anticipate problems the company can't foresee and solve legal issues the company cannot solve. Now that businesses are requiring the legal function to bring more value – we need to make people shift in their perception about us: from the unconstructive department to the problem solving one, capable of giving strategic advice, making a positive difference to the company strategies, also and above all towards innovation.


In an ever-increasing regulatory environment, with businesses continuously growing in complexity, facing increasing pressure by macro-environmental elements (e.g., pandemics, migration, ageing population) – legal thinking needs to widen up. We have to brush up on the concept of VUCA [2] (an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and allow much more constructive collaborations with other departments by going beyond the defensive approach, strengthening up the ability to gather more inputs from the other business departments, reasoning by analogy, envisioning outcomes, cooperating with other professionals and finally propose unique paths and new solutions.


3. The non-creatives Apparently, there is no reasonable doubt: lawyers are physiologically unimaginative, non-innovative, uninventive. We have a traditionalistic, conservative, somehow orthodox way of working. Allegedly, we lack creativity, originality and imagination. We follow the rules. Whatever we touch is turning into a grey magma of complexity and boredom.


Whenever I hear this, I can’t make up my mind about how ‘legal’ would even be remotely considered as a topic for TV series. And instead, there is an abundance of lawyers on TV, such as Perry Mason, Law & Order, Suits, all extremely addictive and popular. Additionally, if only people knew the number of absurd questions, cases or requests clients and businesses manage to come up with, they would understand that ‘creativity’ is the only way to go.


Beyond the frivolous arguments, the majority of legal professionals are intrinsically creative. Our beloved legal analytical thinking creates key usable insights that are useless if not assembled most cleverly. The analytical step is only the first one, which is giving us all the elements that we will use in the creative one. The latter couldn't exist without the former. We need to reposition our role in the business and include other teams in the conversation, to make them realise how the ‘analytical’ step results in opportunities and solutions discovery.


Firstly, we should start by becoming aware of our creative potential. We insist so much on our analytical skills, that it becomes difficult to conceive ourselves in any other way. People tell us we are not creative and we accept it. The shift should be towards awareness – looking at what we do in a new frame. Whenever supporting business, legal professionals extrapolate elements and connect these in a way that others are not able to do. We should never forget that a large part of being analytical is about being critical: we evaluate patterns and solutions, foreseeing possible risks and imagining possible futures.


Secondly, we should position ourselves as business players. Legal professionals need to reach the strategic balance between defending a business and making it thrives – between being ‘business guardians’ and being ‘business players’. Our analytical mindset offers us a unique opportunity to make our creativity expand even more – we need to enhance it when we propose solutions. We need to open the door to other departments and involve them in the conversations.


4. The bad-communicators I read once an interesting question on Quora: “why is legal language so arcane and convoluted?”. That is the legalese, the dialect of legal professionals and legal documents.


We need to pick our battles and, in this case, there are very little chances to win. We tend to be complex, with the risk to result vague and unclear. How did we get from the sophists, orators and masters of eloquence to this?


When it comes to business and working with different teams, the legal professional way of communicating might turn out counterproductive. In many cases, departments are avoiding the legal one, or making decisions based on the ‘because-legal-say-so’ mentality. We tend to be verbose when we explain orally and excruciatingly long when we write and explain concepts to our non-legal colleagues. This is very dangerous for us as it reinforces stereotypes. The biggest mistake is forgetting that there might be someone without a law degree at the other end of the conversation.


I am amazed by the challenge/opportunity that our legal design colleagues are tackling. They are making a revolution in our field. Furthermore, we should take the communication issue to a much wider focus. Legal professionals need to learn how to talk to non-legal-savvy people, developing a way of explaining and arguing that is more accessible and understandable.


How to make it happen? Breaking the ‘bad communicator’ stereotype is in fact the very first starting point of the legal mindset revolution, that will empower us to get out of the comfort trap.


The very first step: simplification. As John C. Maxwell [3] says “people are persuaded not by what we say, but by what they understand”. We must be clear, to the point and simplify our communications. I’d like to provide you with some takeaways to put into practice:

  • Avoid jargon. Imagine for a moment what it's like not to know what you know. Start from the assumption that the majority of people do not know anything about the law. How would you explain your point more understandably?

  • Re-think. It might take as little as highlighting keyword in a presentation or using metaphors from daily life or even identify an image for every concept you are explaining. How would you render your points into images or anecdotes?

  • Share less. We live in the information-overloaded era. The more details we share, the less our interlocutors discern what is relevant from what is not. Focus only on what you need them to assimilate. Ask yourselves if this is really relevant. Is it adding anything substantial to the concept? Is this clarifying the concept or is it asking for more clarifications?

  • Engage. If you found some anecdotes or metaphors, it’s time to use them. You can also go visual as this is the best way to overcome barriers. Take a piece of paper, a pencil, schematise and sketch your points – you will be able to explain something unfamiliar to your audience. How would you design your points?

Going Forward

As macro environments are shaking, laws and regulations will inevitably become more and more present in business strategy. When it comes to the legal sector, innovation has often a lot to do with technology but not enough to the mindset, skills and competences. The legal function is burdened with many stereotypes, namely, the ‘no’ department, the trouble-makers, the non-creatives and (of course) the bad-communicators. These are making arduous to reframe it into a much more powerful and strategic role.


Legal professionals need to shift their mindset and sit at the strategy table to make sure companies are well-equipped with all that is needed not only to mitigate risks and comply but also to innovate, grow and get/retain a competitive advantage. And it all starts with good communications.

 

Notes

[1] T. S. Wood (March 30, 2020) Making the Legal Department the 'Department of How’ – Corporate Counsel https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2020/03/30/making-legal-the-department-of-how/

[2] N. Bennett and G. J. Lemoine (January–February 2014) What VUCA Really Means for You – Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2014/01/what-vuca-really-means-for-you

[3] J. C. Maxwell (2010) Everyone Communicates, Few Connect. Nashville, TN – Thomas Nelson, p.165

 

About the Author Chiara Lamacchia is a consultant in legal, marketing & legal forecasting with an LL.M. from Bocconi University (Milan, Italy) and an MSc in Marketing from Edinburgh Napier University (UK). Chiara works in corporate strategy and marketing serving global organisations, across different sectors. Besides, among other things, Chiara introduced a new concept, 'lawrketing', combining law, business, marketing and innovation – and is also the Founder of lawrketing.com and withoutconsulting.com, promoting the adoption of innovative ways of using the law for competitive advantage.


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