Lawyers and Business Acumen

The state of constant change is a business reality.  Executives need and want to hire a lawyer with strong business acumen.  We hear and see that need often in job descriptions and interviews. Yet what does business acumen mean and how do you know if you have it?

The typical company has undertaken multiple enterprise-wide changes in the last few years from restructuring, expansion into new markets, and leadership transitions.  Lawyers now work with more stakeholders on more new legal issues across more global offices than ever before, and corporate employees in all functions agree that the work environment is changing faster than ever.

A lawyer’s performance in supporting a company as it shifts directions is business acumen.  And, typically, this is a new skill to hone for most lawyers. The issue 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.  These are 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 positive message is that lawyers are smart and these skills can be learned, trained and coached.  The key skills that can assist lawyers to be adaptable and flexible in the face of change are:

  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.  

  1. 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 in deciding a course of action.

  1. Provide Experience.

It is powerful learning to when one can take the wheel and steer through an actual business challenge.  This experience learning 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 effects of decisions provides hands-on learning that can be drawn upon when one is in the real situation.

The ability to adapt to change is crucial for lawyers who are navigating today’s complex and fluid business environment.  General counsel who design career development plans for their team, facilitate exposure to other parts of the business/operations, and train by providing hands-on experiences will build solid lawyers for the future.