The Secret to Working with Lawyers

I’m not really a lawyer hater.

In a recent post about secrets communicators will never tell you, I said that we’ll do anything to avoid getting the Legal department to review our work. This is true probably 99% of the time. When our work gets into the hands of corporate lawyers, it usually returns a mere shell of its previous form.

There is, however, that 1%. And I must admit that I have had the great fortune of being in that 1%.

When I edited the monthly employee publication at Capital One, I had a wonderful working relationship with the company’s general counsel. He rarely changed anything, but he raised excellent questions and red-flagged statements that were unclear or might lead to trouble. (This was more than 10 years ago when the company was just starting up; I can’t attest to how these things work at the company now that it has grown.)

I’ve also had a good experience with one of my clients that owns a number of consumer products companies. This corporation operates in an environment where lawyers must be extremely cautious. Yet, our team — which primarily writes content for the company’s intranet and some executive speeches — has developed a good working relationship with legal counsel over the years.

What is the common denominator in these experiences? What’s the secret to working with lawyers?

It’s really very simple and it’s right before our noses: communication.

I’ve especially found this to be the case with my client. At first, our team and the Legal department had a fairly typical communicator-lawyer relationship. Then, we invited our function’s lawyer to our weekly meeting so that we could understand the kinds of things that cause Legal’s hearts to skip beats. We learned a lot about the laws and regulations governing the industry and about corporate separateness for an entity that owns several companies. We also enlightened the lawyer on how communicators work and how important it is for us to tell a compelling, interesting story in order to get messages across to audiences. We agreed on which issues were non-negotiable and which ones could slide, which ones would expose the corporation to risk and which ones were benign.

From that point, our relationship with the Legal department steadily improved. Now we view the lawyers much more as business partners and less as threats to our ability to do our jobs. This is not to say we don’t still have our disagreements (and the lawyers usually win). But things are much better now.

We communicators  love to complain about lawyers and how they surgically remove all creativity from our work. But how many of us, in the words of Stephen Covey, seek first to understand and then to be understood? My advice is to bite the bullet, bite your lip if you have to, and sit down with your company’s lawyers. It might just be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

OK, beautiful might be pushing it. They’re still lawyers, after all.