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Understanding the business is paramount for in-house legal

That there's often a disconnect between in-house counsel and their wider organization is well known. Yet finding the answer to this issue isn't straightforward. It requires both counsel and business members to walk in the other's shoes. Michael Green, GM of Partnerships, UK and EMEA at Xero, is unique because he transitioned from GM, Legal into his commercial role. His dual experience gives him good insight into what it is like dealing with legal from the business point-of-view and, on the flip side, counsel's narrative.

"When people jump from private practice into in-house, they are acclimatized to the private practice environment where you act as a service provider to the business," he explains.

The issue is these newly minted in-house lawyers continue to act in that private practice fashion, which Green describes as "very transactional". He says that when working in private practice as opposed to in-house, lawyers don't understand the implications of their work on clients to the same extent. "You might not see where that piece of work goes or understand how it's been used and how people have acted on your advice. It's more one-sided than being deeply embedded in the business."

Rather than integrating with the business and its objectives, counsel can make the mistake of waiting to be approached. In essence, acting reactively rather than proactively. "One of the biggest challenges you face as an in-house counsel is breaking down that transactional service provider relationship and establishing yourself as a key business partner or advisor."

Green asks and answers the following question: What is the point of in-house counsel if they are not entwined with their businesses? "The benefit of having in-house counsel and not just briefing everything externally is the level of understanding and connection they have to the overall purpose and vision of the company."

This nuanced comprehension can extend further than just legal advice. In Green's opinion, the best legal teams provide guidance and help steer the business in a direction that aligns with their objectives. "Sometimes business partners don't necessarily know what they're asking for. Legal's role can be to help them figure that out by understanding how things tie into the business's priorities."

Having sound relationships with executive leaders is integral to understanding the business and Green recommends that counsel make a conscientious effort to foster trusting relationships with their stakeholders. "I know how valuable it is for me in a commercial role to have a solid relationship with legal counsel. When legal are more involved, they can add value beyond just being briefed on a project or advice."

So, how exactly can counsel foster deep relationships across the business? Green's advice is simple. "Be visible and available – attend more meetings for other business units, turn up to work events, and get involved in extracurricular activities."

By showing your face and keeping abreast of your business's operations and strategy, legal inadvertently gain a deeper insight and comprehension of what their colleagues need.

Ultimately, legal teams want to be in a position where they can foresee compliance or regulatory issues; the only way to achieve this is through business integration. In a metaphorical sense, the legal team should have their finger on the organization's pulse.

As Green's experience in legal and commercial roles demonstrates, there is considerable value in placing emphasis on relationships.

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