Career Navigation: Lawyers and Business Acumen

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A typical company has undertaken multiple enterprisewide changes in the last several years from restructuring, expansion into new markets and leadership transitions. Lawyers now work with more stakeholders on more legal issues across more global offices than ever before. Corporate professionals in all functions agree that the work environment is also changing faster. A lawyer’s performance in supporting a company as it shifts directions is critical.

Executives need and want to hire a lawyer, whether in house or as outside counsel, with strong business acumen. We hear and see the term business acumen regularly in requests for proposals, in job descriptions and in interviews. Yet what does business acumen mean and how do you get it? The ability to make good judgments and quick decisions in and for a business is business acumen.

Often, these are new skills to hone for most lawyers. It is not that lawyers are not smart enough. Lawyers have been schooled, trained and rewarded for activities such as writing, reporting, following procedures, presenting, communicating and adhering to principles; all activities and skills that provide value when an environment is stable.

By contrast, a shifting, changing environment requires capability in entrepreneurial thinking, planning, organizing, leading, creating, innovating, formulating strategy, achieving objectives, adapting and readjusting with setbacks. Typically, lawyers are unprepared for this behavior in a fluid environment.

The encouraging reality is that lawyers are smart and business acumen skills can be learned, trained and developed at any level of experience. Here are three effective ways to increase one’s business acumen:

No. 1 – Career Development Plans. Rising lawyers need direct exposure to different business challenges if they are to learn and become more agile. Too often they are working in a silo, working on and seeing only pieces of the issue. By intentionally providing a diverse set of experiences and projects for beginning, mid-level and senior lawyers, development opportunities are less likely to fall to the wayside for day-to-day urgencies.

No. 2 – Broaden the Experience Base. Grooming leaders who can understand the impact of change on the business and adapt accordingly requires lawyers to spend time outside the legal cocoon. Diversify their experience by working on client boards or other client industry-focused boards. Lawyers will get exposure to strategy and governance issues while the organization benefits via instant access to legal advice. The greater exposure a lawyer can have into the endless range of business choices that senior business leaders face, the more equipped they will be to add value to their clients.

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No. 3 – Provide Experience. It is powerful learning when one can take the wheel and steer through an actual business challenge. This learning experience may be with actual business issues or it may take the form of intentional role playing within the career development plan. The ability to try what one has learned or to experience the trial-and-error effect of decisions provides handson learning that can be drawn upon when one is in the real situation.

The state of constant change is a business reality. The ability to adapt to change is crucial for lawyers who are navigating today’s complex and fluid business environment. The leaders, partners and general counsel who design career development plans for their team, facilitate exposure to various parts of the business/operations and train by providing hands-on experiences will equip lawyers to add value in the face of change.    Jodi Standke

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