New Skills for Legal Executives

I joined LegalShield as its first general counsel in 2003, when the company was still public, after working for almost seven years for large corporate law firms. Growing up, I thought I would be a teacher, so I completed my bachelor’s degree in English. As things went, I opted to go to law school. I’m not sure I knew where I would end up in the legal profession, but certainly I never dreamed I would be doing all the things I do today. Thinking like a lawyer with a new twist is critical in my role and in today’s legal services industry.

Today, my official title is senior vice president for regulatory affairs and chief legal officer. That’s a lot of words for a job that encompasses a mixed bag of duties. Overseeing the company’s legal affairs, including litigation, corporate legal matters, and regulatory and governmental matters is what I know and what is natural for a lawyer. Adding in regulatory affairs, legislative affairs, team management, product development, and day-to-day operations are all things that were not in the original job description. These things, however, are possible because of my legal background. This work as part of the LegalShield executive team challenges my law school training, law firm experiences and encourages me to expand my mind beyond only “thinking like a lawyer.”

The legal services industry is evolving and it is focused, now as always, on ethics and regulations. Recent ethics rulings in New Jersey found that the legal services program provided by Avvo amounts to an impermissible referral service and fee-sharing with a non-lawyer, in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC). The same opinion also found that LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer violate ethics rules because they are not registered with the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts. Since that time, LegalZoom has filed and is properly registered. These regulatory challenges and ethics opinions, while not directed at my company, are areas I am well prepared to navigate based on my law school training. These are the things I know.

However, that same legal, rules-based approach is sometimes not the best fit for creative problem-solving or business and product development. Things are different, and not just in the legal realm. I grew up in Ada, Oklahoma, a small rural town, where LegalShield was founded 45 years ago as the pioneer pre-paid legal services company in the United States. The company is still headquartered in Ada, and we employ almost 700 people in my hometown. While proud of the heritage, we are excited about our future. In 2014, LegalShield hired Jeff Bell, who is an inspiring visionary with Oklahoma roots. Jeff is dedicated to LegalShield, and he resides in Seattle. When I joined, everyone worked in Ada. Today, with new leadership and a strong vision, some of our executive team is dispersed around the U.S. This requires a new approach, creative solutions and, of course, technology. Adapting to a new way of business was not taught in law school.

Over the past several years, we have introduced technology, change processes, and implemented Agile development methods for all aspects of our business. This has been transformative for our business and my role. Remember, I am trained as a lawyer, but am adapting to new ways of doing old things. As a result of all these evolutions, I have new skills required in my role. The following is a list of skills and tips that are required for lawyers that weren’t taught in law school:

  • Delegation: Giving up control to appropriately assign work to a team is critical. Ask yourself if you are the best person to be working on a project. Keeping work to yourself will send the wrong message to your team, and in truth, you can’t do it all. I say in my personal life outside of LegalShield that “it takes a village” to raise a family. The same “village” mentality is important in business. Delegation is a way to work with your village. Sharing the work can help not only with deadlines but also finding your successor.
  • People Management: Working within a team requires relationship building and finding your leadership style. As a lawyer in business you will be managing your team and likely others, as many organizations have direct reporting and indirect or dotted line reporting. Management is up, down, sideways, and backwards. You will have to manage upward to your boss and in some cases, a board of directors. Management is relationship building. There are no lone wolves in successful business. Do some reading on mindfulness and emotional intelligence.
  • Time Management: Giving up the billable hour is a dream of many a young lawyer. But while there is a shift from having to track hours to managing work to complete projects on time, it isn’t easy and it isn’t less work. Delegation does help here, but for most there are not enough hours in the day to do everything. I suggest using basic project management skills like zeroing out your inbox, blocking time for projects, lists, and creating a project flowchart to quickly identify roadblocks and bottlenecks. This is a constant work in progress, but it takes mindfulness and attention.
  • Technology: In my unique role at LegalShield, I am constantly looking at ways to solve the access to justice problem; that has been LegalShield’s mission for over 45 years. Technology is helping us move that needle faster than ever before by putting a law firm in the palm of our customers’ hand—providing instant access to a law firm. Keep in mind that the access to justice problem can be addressed by technology and improvements, but that means someone, often this attorney, must vet solutions from not only a legal view, but also from a business case scenario. Integrating technology in to a business model and consumer solution is more than it seems. It’s not a simple process to select a vendor or to work as a member of the team that is overseeing the development of internal software and products. The legal team must be integrated in to these decisions to comply with laws and regulations, but also to be certain that the technology solutions provided to customers are the right ones for our company mission. Be constantly curious about new technologies that will help your customers. Be vigilant and attentive to ideas, processes, and opportunities. And never say no to some new technology just because it is unknown or foreign to you as a lawyer.
  • Agile Methodology: LegalShield has adopted the Agile methodology for development. This works beautifully lawyers too because it is not only quick, adaptable and flexible, but it mandates a team mentality and process. By securing early buy-in from all stakeholders, be quick and adaptable, we cut down on mistakes and see improvements faster. Every lawyer in every setting can benefit from this.
  • Board Reporting: For lawyers, this can be daunting because the board wants numbers and return on investment calculations for projects, including technology. Anticipating the why questions: Why is this the right technology? Why should the board approve a new position? Board reporting is not too different from the traditional practice of law in that you must be prepared, have your arguments ready, research your position and speak or communicate effectively and succinctly. This is a nuance that builds on legal skills.
  • Thought Leadership: Writing, speaking, and volunteer activity is time-consuming but important. You can hone your business skills in volunteer capacity on boards and in your community or in your industry. Thought leadership is keeping up with trends, issues and developments that directly impact your business. Lawyers can play a critical role in this. And in the legal services industry, such as the business that LegalShield is involved in, thought leadership is critical for lawyers.

Generally stated, none of these skills are taught in law school. However, all of them are important to a lawyer in a business setting. All can be useful for a lawyer working for a company, a law firm, or as a solo practitoner.

I do not think that my responsibilities are radically different than others’ at rapidly growing companies where the chief legal position is part of the executive team. We have evolved to where the legal department is not just legal support after an issue arises. Rather, our legal team is an equal member of the management team, staying in front of issues with a keen eye to business and legal solutions and compliance. Anyone thinking about law school, I say “go for it.” The opportunities, if you have an open mind and a hankering for change, are endless.

About the Author

Keri C. Norris is senior vice president for regulatory affairs and chief legal officer for LegalShield, is chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Group & Prepaid Legal Services and is past president of the Group Legal Services Association (GLSA). Contact her on Twitter @KeriNorris.

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