Is Your Legal Department a ‘Partner’ to Your Business?

Nadaline Webster,

It is the general perception that lawyers, whether in-house or private practice, often aren’t viewed in the role of a valuable strategic partner. Instead the legal department can be viewed as being an impediment to the business needs which must be worked around in order to succeed. Whilst undoubtedly the ability of the lawyer to prevent the business from taking a hit is appreciated, the rest of the time, the restrictions imposed by legal issues can chafe a bit.

It is not hard to see where the friction comes in. Companies need quick certainty and lawyers are trained to avoid exactly that. Careful (sometimes slow) gathering and consideration of all potentially relevant factors before answering with a ‘maybe’ is not a process that syncs well with modern day business.

So how can this be overcome? Joe Quigley of Rivet LLC shares his thoughts:

Is there much opportunity in law school for young lawyers to learn about the operation of a business?

"Unfortunately, legal education has almost nothing to do with the actual practice of law and it doesn’t really prepare a law student to understand their role in business as someone whose role is a service to help a business succeed.  I think that law students should take every advantage they can to get practical experience – many states allow third year students to get limited license to practice under the supervision of an attorney and this is one way that a student can get practical experience and have a chance to learn what the actual practice of law might be".

What does ‘being a business partner’ mean to you?

"To me, first and foremost, being a business partner means understanding your role in the business and how you can best add value. I have had the honor of working for some world-class brands. They were successful long before I got there and I hope that they are all successful after I have moved on. I can do my part to leave them in better shape than when I arrived, but ultimately, it’s not about me, it’s about getting the business the advice they need to be as successful as possible while reducing risk to continued growth of the business.

Being a partner means listening to what the business wants to accomplish and managing the risk to get them to as close as possible to what they want to do whether in a design of a product, the name for it or how it is marketed and promoted. Most importantly, I believe being a good partner means recognizing that the product development teams, the sales teams, marketing teams, etc. are the ones driving the business. They and create profit and growth. I’ve seen too many instances where the approach from legal is to treat the business teams as petulant children who need to be kept in place or irresponsible risk takers who engage in foolish behavior. You have to respect the business teams and assume good intentions always so that you can help them achieve their goals in ways that don’t eliminate all risk, but that balance the risk in a way that everyone agrees is best for the company".

What one critical piece of advice would you give a young lawyer in their first in-house position? 

"Being an in-house lawyer is very different from being at a firm. First, you are now overhead – you are no longer a profit center and therefore your role and importance is very different. You need to understand that.  If you don’t; you will fail. Second, you need to give concrete, practical advice that allows the business to keep moving – the business doesn’t want to hear your brilliant analysis – they want an answer. For instance, if you are clearing an advertising slogan and it’s important to the team that it can become registered as a trademark. When they have the slogan they want, they have one question – “Can we use the slogan?” Now I understand that there might be a good amount of analysis that goes into your advice on whether the slogan is clear and you could spend a half hour walking them through all the analysis that you did. However, after that brilliant discussion of everything that you considered and all the risks that you weighed, their question is still the same – “Can we use the slogan?” Just give them your answer and any other advice that may go along with the proposed use, but don’t waste their time.  You are there as a service professional and your job is to serve your client – your job is not to be self-important".

The Masterclass

The demand for in-house counsel to demonstrate their value and work as a partner to the business they serve has never been greater. TrademarkNow has partnered with Joe Quigley, founder of Rivet LLC for a masterclass in building and developing the unique and diverse skill set required of in-house IP counsel.

He brings over two decades worth of in-house expertise at leading companies such as Walt Disney, NIKE, Liz Claiborne, Kate Spade New York, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans, Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. Today, his firm specialises in providing services to in-house counsel and making their job easier.

Don’t miss your opportunity to benefit from the experience and insights that built his FAST, PRACTICAL and COLLABORATIVE approach to trademark clearance.

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