When I was in law school, exam questions were made-up scenarios based on half-a-page set of facts and the answers were supposed to provide real-life legal solutions. Context and the reasons behind the facts are almost never discussed nor given any importance. The facts are given and to be taken as true.
After passing the bar examinations, I started my legal career at a law firm. I was trained to provide legal advice based on the letter of the law. I remember handling a labor case where several employees claimed that they were dismissed for just cause without any evidence. After discussing with the client and sifting through the pile of documents, I discovered that the employees were guilty of violating company policies, but the client could not submit ample evidence because it would’ve disclosed confidential customer information.
My recommendation was to ask the client to settle and let them know that they needed to prove that the employee terminations were due to just causes. Later on, the client asked for assistance with a few more cases with similar circumstances. It was puzzling to find out that the client continued terminating employees without providing ample evidence and, consequently, incurring unnecessary litigation costs.
I became an in-house legal counsel and learned that lawyers were thought of as showstoppers. My stakeholders were used to receiving dos and don’ts as legal advice. In their eyes, lawyers would just tell them to stop and forget about business goals. I couldn’t blame them considering that there are a lot of laws and regulations that regulate business activities. So, they only consulted me only when problems occurred.
I knew I had to do something to change the misconception of my role’s purpose. I found myself jumping in to ask my stakeholders how they conduct their business and the reasons for their actions. I also started leading and joining multiple sessions to understand operations from start to finish and the usual problems they encounter.
They all had the intention of accomplishing business goals by working fast and efficiently while minimizing risks. I quickly started realizing that a legal risk is just one of the many risks that my stakeholders must consider. More importantly, I recognized that legal risks are not always the biggest risks.
Looking back, I’ve finally understood why that client had to terminate employees even if they couldn’t submit ample evidence to justify terminations. The client had to balance risks of terminating the employees without being able to provide ample evidence, losing the client’s customer if the employees were not terminated, and unnecessarily disclosing the customer’s confidential information in litigation. Given the circumstances, losing the client’s customer outweighs the other risks.
Far from half-a-page set of facts in law school, legal practice involves sifting through piles of documents to identify true and relevant facts. Experience in business operations provides in-house legal counsels the proper context and the bigger picture when handling legal matters. With more and better knowledge of the facts and experience in running operations, in-house legal counsels become better equipped in providing tailored legal solutions that guide stakeholders in planning and achieving their business goals while minimizing legal risks.
But this doesn’t mean that legal risks are always going to be secondary. In-house legal counsels must continue flagging and preventing all unwarranted illegal actions that may shut down a business. Our role is to protect the interest of the business and support it by making sure that it continues to serve its mission. But our role can only be fulfilled when it starts with understanding the big picture first.
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