Come Out From Behind The Curtain

Come Out From Behind The Curtain

question manWe send out office memos to all employees lovingly signed by the ubiquitous “Legal.”

We redline the heck out of a document and send it back to the requestor, who has undoubtedly has a few choice words for us in their head.

And when we get pulled into a meeting, its generally with the company executives, not the average front line employee.

Which is to say, even though the presence of in-house counsel is generally well-known and well-felt throughout an organization, it is likely rare the average employee could identify those who work in legal from those who work in the mailroom. (Hint for those non-attorneys reading, the mailroom folks are generally the ones with smiles on their faces as they are not laden with seemingly insurmountable student loan debt).

Couple the fact that no one knows what we look like with the often Debbie-downer memos and guidance we transmit, and you can bet the average employee envisions us as a group of curmudgeons who were not hugged enough as a children. Which while comical, because we generally know how great we are and will have no issue telling you the same, presents a real problem in the workplace.

How can we head off potential issues at their start if 95% of the office knows us only as the voice behind the curtain e-mail?

We were in a company wide town hall the other week where our general counsel was set to deliver a few remarks along with some of our other executives. Each executive stepped to the podium with no introduction even being needed. They gave their remarks, took a few questions from the audience, and were on their way. Most of the audience questions were on topic and related to the particular executives’ area of expertise. The first question to our general counsel was by a well meaning employee who, seemingly speaking for the entire audience, asked our general counsel who they were.

Sure, this could be dismissed as a less than shining star of an employee who had to ask our general counsel who they were after they had just finished a presentation on the legal risks to our organization, but for me, it drove home the larger issue. If our own general counsel was not recognizable after delivering a presentation to the company, what chance did I or my other colleagues have of anyone knowing who we were?

So my fellow behind the curtain dwellers, I beseech you, start to make yourself more well known.

Have a redline to deliver? Drop by and deliver it in person and then follow-up with an e-mail. Sure they will roll their eyes at you when they look through the mountain of edits you have made, but at least they will know what you look like!

Have an annual compliance memo that needs to go out? Sure, send it, but maybe consider scheduling some open-door hours or meetings so employees can drop by to ask you questions after it has gone out. Company wide meeting coming up? Ask for a few minutes on the agenda if for no other reason than to say hello and help them put a face with a name.

Will it be uncomfortable to leave the safety of your curtain and talk with your non-legal colleagues? You bet, it will feel strange and wrong. After all, law school taught us how to write and argue with other lawyers, not make water cooler small-talk with near strangers.

But go out on a limb, attempt to smile in passing, anything you can do to seem approachable, even if it’s a little creepy. Because who knows, that office friendship you strike up with Peggy in accounting just may lead to the future tip-off you need to help your company avert a legal disaster.

Stephen R. Williams is in-house counsel with a multi-facility hospital network in the Midwest. His column focuses on a little talked about area of the in-house life, management. You can reach Stephen at


Published at Fri, 24 Feb 2017 00:00:08 +0000

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