MHTweets: 21st Annual General Counsel Conference Recaps – Part 1

by Mike Mintz on June 16, 2009 · 1 comment

in Corporate counsel issues

Keynote Address: Adding Value in Good Times and Bad, Richard Baer

Today’s economic climate has been called the worst since the Great Depression, but according to Richard Baer, general counsel for Qwest Communications International Inc., dark times can present opportunities for change. No stranger to adversity, Baer took over the GC role at Qwest in 2004, as the company faced a $40 billion investor lawsuit over accounting scandals and allegations of executive fraud. Under his leadership, the legal department settled most investor claims for $400 million, one-percent of the original sum sought, and did what they could to “humanize the company.” Four-years later, his efforts won Corporate Counsel Magazine’s award for Best Legal Department of 2008, and the word “scandal” no longer appears in Google results for the term “Qwest.” So how did he do it?  

After an introduction by Laxmi Wordham, VP of Martindale-Hubbell Large Law, Baer outlined five areas of focus for general counsel navigating a crisis, which he called “the 5 Cs:
1.      Communications
2.      Critical Thinking
3.      Consensus
4.      Conscience of the Company
5.      Credibility
Key Role in Corporate Communications– According to Baer, law departments must view their role as larger than just “legal advisor” to the company. Attorneys are people who make a living based on the clarity and accuracy of their written and oral communication. General Counsel should leverage these skills by reviewing and shaping corporate communications to make sure the goal is met by the statement. Saying, “no comment” to the media does nothing to advance the corporation’s interests, and can actually backfire when high emotions are involved.
Get to the Truth: Critical Thinking – Law departments should play “devil’s advocate” in an effort to help the corporation get to the truth. This does not mean “be a devil,” rather challenge assumptions in a constructive way so that executive leadership looks at all sides of the present challenge, even the unpleasant ones. GCs do this by: (1) playing detective and (2) gaining perspective. Investigation gets the truth out on the table, and GCs are the ones who will do this by holding 1-on-1 meetings with the opposition. Uncovering these facts gains better perspective and reveals solutions that put everyone in a better position to respond appropriately.
Gain Consensus  - Troubled times can tear an organization apart, and the GC must coordinate legal strategy by getting buy-in from all parts of the business. Representing the organization as a “client,” means harmonizing various interests in the company and gaining consensus for a unified approach that will presents a strong foundation to rebuild the company once the trouble is resolved.
Conscience of the Company – In building and maintaining the conscience of the company, Baer gave some practice advice. Follow the M&M rule: (1) how will it look in the Media and (2) what would Mom say? A law department manages risk for the organization by making sure that all levels of the company would agree to any actions or communications by members the company if they were informed of it beforehand. It is the responsibility of the corporate counsel to make sure that all employees are informed of what is and what is not acceptable in a crisis, and take steps towards compliance.
Establish Credibility – A great law department must overcome the misperception that they are a roadblock to what corporate leadership and staff wants to accomplish. This comes through building meaningful relationships with the business team and establishing trust. Baer says the idea that the in-house lawyer does not need to engage in client development is false; you are always building relationships with the people in your company, especially in the wake of major changes and new faces. This requires good internal marketing to inform the business leaders that the law department is one of their strongest partners. For the law department, superb client service can be developed by understanding from a business perspective what the company needs and being responsive to those needs.   

Best practice: establish a rule that the law department gets back to the corporate client within the hour, (yes, it is possible). Also, always have an answer for the question, “what have you done for me lately?” 

Conclusion – Following these guidelines even when under siege can make for a smoother experience and a more favorable outcome. It is important not to lose focus on life balance even during tough times; you will be in a better position to make better decisions if you and your staff are not run ragged by the impulse to work around the clock. Rather, do what is necessary and not extraneous. 

Rich Baer is on Martindale-Hubbell Connected. Are you?

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