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Five Tips for In-House Legal To Collaborate with Cross-Functional Teams At Tech Companies

I was chatting with a bright young lawyer who wanted to brainstorm with me about tips for collaborating with cross-functional teams at a hyper-growth tech company. I applaud her for being proactive and wanting to become more effective. Looking back at my experience leading procurement, collaborating with various engineering and business teams, and having been a lawyer myself, here are my two cents.

1. In-house legal must know that they are a service department, and the goal is to provide a service to the entire company

As lawyers at law firms, lawyers don’t need to be reminded that the client is paying for their service by the minute, and the clients must be treated as such. However, at companies, while lawyers also know that they are effectively providing a service to the entire company, they are often in a position of power, so much so that they sometimes forget their job is still to serve. In addition, because in-house legal is typically very lean and often bombarded with requests from various teams, some legal teams may develop an attitude of “I’ll get to it when I get to it.”

This is incorrect. In-house counsel should be reminded that they are a support function like other support groups such as finance and procurement. The goal is to provide an effective, expeditious service. The engineers and other teams asking for our input or approval are, after all, our customers.

Once we establish this baseline, then we will know how to approach our customers. I suggest always having a “can-do attitude” and asking, “how can I help?”. Instead of citing excuses and finding reasons why we can’t do something on time, we should always ask, can I enable this? Can we take on a bit more risk? If not possible, are there alternative ways to enable this vs. blocking the initiative altogether? This leads to my second point about being an enabler vs. a bottleneck.

2. In-house legal should transform from being a “bottleneck” to being an enabler

Lawyers are, by nature, risk-averse. In addition, our license is on the line when people ask us to assess a risky situation and/or seek advice about whether we can do something.

However, because tech companies are by nature constantly innovating and pushing the bleeding edge, as lawyers for tech companies, we must also always find ways to enable vs. just block.

Sometimes, when presented with a seemingly risky scenario, we must put on both our business hats as well as legal hats. While a risk may seem extremely high, we must also evaluate the probability, without which we cannot fully assess the magnitude of the risk of a given scenario. For example, when fighting with the counterparty about a limitation of liability clause, we should also fully understand what the likelihood of something actually happening is, as opposed to being purely fixated on the cap amount on the LOL.

In addition, in-house lawyers must also do everything they can and deploy modern technology to turn themselves from bottlenecks to enablers. For example, is there a way to educate and empower the bigger teams to do a first-cut review on routine agreements themselves? Can we deploy legal automation to expedite our routine reviews? Here at Trusli, this is exactly what we set out to do and how we differ from an old school CLM company. If this sounds intriguing, let’s chat.

3. Learning about the business and technology itself will go a long way

Lawyers at law firms are highly specialized and mostly deal with legal topics. However, once in-house, lawyers are often overwhelmed by the magnitude and breadth of topics they deal with. Sometimes, they are presented with complex business, compliance, and HR-related questions; other times, they are thrown into deep technical discussions through which it’s hard to find a way to navigate.

In-house should stay curious and consciously attempt to understand the bigger business and technology at play. The more we understand the overall business and technology, the better we are to understand, prioritize, and properly calibrate the legal tasks and risks at play.

Some may ask, for something as highly technical as semiconductor or automotive, where jargon fly and engineers can go down a rabbit hole really quickly, how do you even go about learning about the business or technology?

Fortunately, we have so many resources at our fingertips in this era. You can chit-chat with ChatGPT to dive into any sector or industry. You can research topics by reading on Wikipedia, Quora, or just doing a Google search. Finally, abundant resources such as Coursera or other online courses exist. But for in-house counsel, another great resource is just the team that they work with. We can simply ask our cross-functional partners to explain their technology or business endeavors to us. Of course, not everyone can be a great teacher, and sometimes the teams are eager to get their tasks at hand done rather than giving us a crash course on their domain; you will be surprised how much people enjoy sharing and teaching us what they know when we ask nicely. Stay curious, ask the right questions, learn and adapt. This is also one of the best ways to build rapport and trust. As humans, we thrive when people want to learn from us and give us a forum to showcase our knowledge and expertise. So, asking the cross-functional partners to learn more about their tech and business is a fantastic way to learn and also build relationships. More on this below.

4. Explain the why and the how

Many misunderstandings stem from the lack of communication and not taking the time to explain the why and the how. Because in-house counsel is often on a time crunch and are often times under stress to get things done, sometimes we may take shortcuts and forget to explain the why and the how.

But keep in mind that the cross-functional team are “lay persons”. They may be overwhelmed by the legalese and the fact that we are constantly telling them that they cannot do certain things they must wait, among other frustrating endeavors. When I was leading a procurement organization, one of the values and missions that I set for my team is to evangelize and explain to the cross-functional teams why we must do certain things. For procurement, we never want to be perceived as the procurement police who tell people they can’t get what they want and we must have our chance at haggling. In contrast, we want to become subject matter experts in what we are procuring and find strategic and innovative ways to empower the team while also achieving savings for the company. Typically, once we take the time to explain the why and how, our endeavors are much better received, and the team actually understands and supports our efforts.

Similarly, in my opinion, in-house legal should be conscientious about educating the bigger team about the why and the how. What do all these terms mean in layman’s terms? Why do we even care? What would happen if we don’t fight the counterparty to the teeth on this? A little explanation will go a long way about getting the team aligned and motivated to achieve a common goal for the startup: building and shipping the product without any delay and/or taking on unnecessary risks.

5. Communicate, collaborate and build relationships

My last tips are more common sense than anything. Communicate, over-communicate. Keep people in the loop and informed about the status and progress. Be friendly collaborate rather than dominate and fight. Go grab lunch or a drink. Make friends outside of work. Find time for a coffee chat and learn about each other’s family and hobbies outside of work. They may all sound really easy and straightforward, but the person who takes the time to do all this will find cross-functional collaboration a delight vs. a constant war.

In today’s startup world, the in-house legal function is critical to a company’s overall productivity, risk management, and compliance. While in-house legal counsel may have some default conflicts with the cross-functional team, ultimately we are all here for the same goal—to make our company thrive. In-house legal must continue to learn, stay curious, use technology such as Trusli Legal AI, expedite the pace while controlling legal control and risk, and help the company accelerate instead of becoming a burden or problem. Comments or thoughts? Share below or write to me directly.

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