As general counsel, your minimum obligation to your company is to keep it out of court and mitigate potential damage when trouble does arrive at the doorstep. But to provide maximum value, you must view yourself as more than the in-house attorney who puts out fires. You have to be a business partner, and you must understand how you can support your company’s business goals by helping leadership anticipate problems before they surface.

By demonstrating fluency in business, you will become a trusted adviser in the boardroom whenever a tough decision is on the horizon. You will establish yourself as your company’s “corporate conscience” who ensures that doing the right thing is ingrained in its business practices. Here are five key ways you can apply business principles to your in-house legal department:

  1. Build a strong corporate culture. Of all of the attributes an effective GC should have, this is at the top of the list. You are positioned to set the tone across all of the company’s functions for how its core values translate into action. When you lay the foundation for a healthy, honest, high-integrity culture, you can overcome any number of day-to-day challenges and successfully steer the corporation through major crises as well.

  2. Cultivate meaningful internal relationships. Your ability to do your job hinges on your relationships with your CEO and the board of directors. Make it a point to meet with the CEO regularly to discuss issues that are strategically important to the business. Pay attention to who is in the inner circle and who isn’t, and to the relationship between your CEO and the board. Getting to know the board and understanding how each of its members prefers to communicate and respond to matters is equally vital. All of these relationships are the currency for building trust within your organization.

  3. Manage your resources effectively. You are under pressure to maximize productivity with a minimal legal spend. This requires getting a sense of your corporation’s top priorities and making sure that the demands you have identified are sustainable. If you head a small department – or are a department of one – go slowly. Don’t be afraid to use temporary staffing to evaluate people you think might fit, but you’re not ready to commit to. You also need to develop a network of trusted outside law firms that can serve as an extension of your department. Be selective and limit those outside counsel relationships to firms aligned with your company’s values.

  4. Look for ways to add value. Transforming the legal department into a profit center will enable you to reap rewards in managing risk, giving you a direct hand in boosting your company’s bottom line. A variety of legal areas present opportunities for revenue enhancement through loss recovery, including antitrust, commercial contracts, intellectual property, environmental remediation, bankruptcy, insurance, and general contract and tort law. To implement loss recovery effectively, obtaining buy-in from and understanding the risk tolerance of your senior leadership is critical, although your efforts need not always involve litigation.

  5. Promote diversity and inclusion. To develop innovative solutions to their clients’ business and legal problems, it is critical for law firms to hire and promote people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. If your company’s in-house legal department practices what it preaches when it comes to diversity and inclusion, you have credibility in setting the same expectations f or the outside firms with whom you collaborate, as well as the broader legal profession. At the DuPont Co., where I spent nearly four decades, diversity and inclusion weren’t mere buzzwords. They were—and still are— values that the company lived and breathed every day, and evangelized to its outside counsel.

Tom Sager is a partner in the Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, offices of Ballard Spahr and the former general counsel at DuPont Co. He leverages his experience leading the legal department at a heavily regulated, Fortune 100 global corporation to handle a broad portfolio of areas, including litigation and trial practice, internal investigations, environmental issues, and mergers and acquisitions. Contact him at AskTom@ballardspahr.com for other tips and insights.

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Tom Sager, Partner, Ballard Spahr
Former GC and SVP of DuPont

Tom helps clients bolster revenue and efficiency structures by enhancing corporate culture, risk management, employment, and internal relationship models.

Contact him at AskTom@ballardspahr.com for other tips and insights.