The O Shaped Lawyer: becoming a true business partner at a scaleup

Dan Kayne, 24 June 2021

Network Rail GC and O Shaped Lawyer founder, Dan Kayne, explains the O Shaped Lawyer initiative, which helps lawyers to adopt the attributes that make them better business partners.

Dan Kayne is the General Counsel at Network Rail, and the founder of the O Shaped Lawyer programme. This is a chapter from The Bundle: issue #1. Download now.

The O Shaped Lawyer is an initiative to improve the legal profession for those who work in it, for those who use it, and for those entering it.

It is a GC-backed programme putting people front and centre of our vision for change. We’re advocating for a modernized approach to the development of lawyers by promoting human-centric skills that will make them better lawyers; create a more inclusive profession; and transform customer experience.

The O shaped framework and the attributes which accompany it are relevant to all kinds of organizations across the legal profession - from law firms and law schools to in-house teams of all sizes. This would include legal teams at the kind of high-growth tech scaleups with which Juro collaborates.

I recently shared details of the programme in an event for the Juro community, and it really underscored the value that these core attributes can deliver in a scaling business.

Breaking down stereotypes

Law is a profession about which almost everyone has an opinion. There’s a deep-rooted perception of lawyers as being only subject matter experts, high in scepticism, low in sociability, and lacking warmth or compassion. This can present real challenges to lawyers, particularly in large organizations where these views are longstanding and can be difficult to shift.

We’ve all heard the stereotypes before: legal is a blocker, takes too long to get things done, says ‘no’ to everything, is too risk-averse. Lawyers need to first break down these stereotypes so that we can start to demonstrate the value we bring. But in a disruptive scaleup, lawyers may join the business and get straight to work with demonstrating their capabilities.

Usually, scaleups don’t tend to have the baggage of thinking that lawyers are policing them - in an early-stage company, relatively few employees will ever have worked with lawyers before. That clean slate can take a great weight off the legal team’s shoulders, as it means they don’t have to dispel those misconceptions before they implement attributes from the O Shaped Lawyer and add value.

Let’s explore the O shaped attributes and consider how they can help scaleup lawyers to support their businesses more effectively.

“We’ve all heard the stereotypes before: legal is a blocker, takes too long to get things done, says ‘no’ to everything, is too risk-averse”

1. Building relationships

The O Shaped Lawyer programme sets out these key skills for building relationships:

  • Empathy: the skill to understand perspectives and agendas of other people

  • Influencing: the skill to change the actions or mindset of others

  • Communication: the skill to deliver the right message to a given audience

  • Collaborate: the skill to work effectively with people both in the short and long term

This set of attributes acts as the foundation for the rest of the model. Building relationships helps lawyers to build trust, and building trust enables lawyers to do their jobs more effectively. Creating an open environment that has psychological safety at its heart helps lawyers resolve issues with parties that don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye - common in any business, and particularly one that’s growing fast.

It is surprising how little attention the legal industry gives to developing skills that would help lawyers build strong relationships. The entire industry ought to be built with the end user in mind, focussing on the quality of service to a client or customer - this should be reflected in the development of human skills which lawyers should be implementing in their day-to-day activities. For example:

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  • In contract negotiations: lawyers can establish relationships with colleagues, customers or the counterparty, and better understand the needs of the end user. They’ll also gain another perspective on the decisions they make, the terms they’re negotiating, and the clauses the counterparty is challenging. This can help lawyers focus on the areas that really make a difference, rather than point-scoring on issues that aren’t a priority for their clients.

  • In everyday conversations: building these relationships can be as easy as diving further than the initial “how are you?” question we ask at the start of our conversations. Being able to step back from the work and use open-ended questions to hold a conversation where people can share is much more valuable and helps build and strengthen bonds

Keeping the end user in mind in these day-to-day tasks will help lawyers maintain relationships and improve how they deliver their service.

2. Create value through legal initiatives

The O Shaped Lawyer programme defines this set of attributes as:

  • Identify the opportunities: the skill to see business opportunities in the face of legal challenges

  • Solve the problems: the skill to find the optimal legal solution to a given business opportunity or challenge

  • Synthesize: the skill to form sound judgements by combining information and determining its importance

  • Simplify complexities: the skill to distil the most critical elements into an easy-to-understand form

Most lawyers are trained following a private practice model where they’re paid to advise on a discrete problem; they deliver that advice, bill for it, and move on to the next matter. This can create a tendency amongst lawyers - even after moving in-house - to finish ‘the legal part’ of their work and step aside, leaving it to their business colleagues to take the difficult decisions without ongoing input from the lawyers.

If we want to be a genuine value-add team, we need to understand that legal work is just one piece of the jigsaw, and that we need to contribute more than just technical expertise in order to enable the business to achieve its objectives. This might come more naturally to some than others, but these skills can be taught and must be practised. It’s important to check in with yourself regularly and ask yourself:

  • What am I working on right now?

  • Why are the current tasks a priority?

  • Do those tasks create value for the business?

  • Am I working on anything that doesn’t align with the business objectives?

  • And if not, how do I do it differently so it doesn’t take up time where we could be contributing to the strategic issues?

As an in-house lawyer in general, but particularly at a scaleup, it’s easy to get snowed under by legal work - especially if you’re the sole counsel. Making sure you’re proactive in regularly checking in will allow you to keep track of your priorities and focus on the tasks that will benefit the wider business.

“Much of what we do will involve learning about the organization and how we need to develop the skills to stay relevant with it”

3. Be adaptable

The O Shaped Lawyer programme defines this set of attributes as:

  • Courage: the skill to take action in the face of fear or uncertainty

  • Resilience: the skill to recover quickly from disappointment or setback

  • Feedback: the skill to seek out information to identify areas for improvement

  • Continuous learning: the skill to apply new skills, techniques and information into practice

The need for adaptability is almost a given in 2021, particularly with lawyers helping to steer their businesses through a pandemic. The O Shaped Lawyer needs to wear different hats and use different skills to support both the executive team and other functions in the company.

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Adaptability is even more important in a scaleup, where lawyers need to switch between contexts quickly, to address issues like internal governance, remote team management and tool selection for the different issues that crop up as the company grows. The agility of a small legal team can be the difference between a successful one and one that is always trying to prove it adds value.

Finally, it’s important to be clear about what we mean by ‘continuous learning’. Most lawyers understand that phrase in the context of continuing professional development (CPD) points, and the ongoing development of their technical skills.

In reality, continuous learning encompasses much more than that; whether we’re part of a team, or the sole counsel, much of what we do will involve learning about the organization and how we need to develop the skills to stay relevant with it, rather than just maintaining a narrow focus on technical legal training.

Maintaining that knowledge and being able to apply it in future instances is what continuous learning is all about. It extends beyond the technical, and covers business understanding and a curiosity to discover new topics and learn new skills. This doesn’t come naturally to some lawyers, but can be taught, and should be embraced, to help legal grow alongside the business.

A people-focused legal team ⚖️

If you’re the first lawyer at a scaleup, chances are, you’ll never lack for work to do. In fact, before you know if you’ll be managing a combination of firefighting, building legal infrastructure, standardizing processes, and dealing with a barrage of legal requests.

As the function responsible for managing legal risk, the legal function has a huge responsibility. Taking the time to develop human centric skills through the O Shaped Lawyer framework can help lawyers make a big difference to both their personal success, and the success of the business.

Find out more about the O Shaped Lawyer initiative here

Want to join the visionary teams scaling legal? Apply to join the Juro community.

Topics: Legal operations

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