Major League Baseball (MLB) is my favorite sport and tomorrow is MLB’s Opening Day 2021. In honor of Opening Day, there are lessons that all in-house counsel can learn from the great sport of baseball about the importance of versatility.
One of my favorite baseball players is Javier (“Javy”) Baez and he plays for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Nicknamed “El Mago” in Spanish or “the Magician,” Mr. Baez is a very exciting ballplayer for the Cubs as he has a rare combination of strong defense, power and speed. However, in my view, one of Mr. Baez’s greatest skills is his ability to play multiple positions on the baseball field. While he is primarily a shortstop – he has also played third base, second base and on occasion first base. He is also athletic enough to play any position in the outfield – and I have little doubt that he could play catcher in the event the Cubs catchers were injured.
As teams were determining their final player rosters for Opening Day this season, all of them wished that they had a Mr. Baez who can play a variety of positions very well in order to maximize their resources and make the team much stronger. All in-house legal teams need lawyers like Mr. Baez who have “range” and can “flex” when needed so that we can best serve our clients.
Here are some thoughts on how in-house counsel can be like Mr. Baez and make themselves more versatile – and more valuable – to their respective legal teams:
Be a Technology Wizard: The pandemic has underscored the importance of technology in the way all lawyers work. Increasingly, technology is the foundation for the operations of all legal departments and their respective practice groups. In-house counsel can make themselves more versatile and valuable by being “power users” of technology – and leveraging the associated data analytics from such technology to help make smart decisions – in order to promote greater productivity, efficiency and collaboration in how she/he works.
Privacy, Privacy, Privacy: While technology plays a bigger role in our lives, the massive amounts of data generated by that technology needs to be properly protected. As we continue to see a proliferation of new data privacy laws and growing cybersecurity concerns, the legal skills associated with understanding data privacy/data protection are core skills for any legal department’s practice group. Data privacy is a learned skill that all corporate counsel need to be deeply conversant as it is easily transportable and highly relevant to virtually any role within a legal team.
Stretch Yourself: Actively seek out opportunities from your management team to learn new skills or to “shadow” others in their roles. Embrace the growth mindset mentality by “stretching” yourself in doing new things for your legal team. For instance, if you are a deal lawyer, ask for an opportunity to work on matters involving your dispute resolution team, your compliance team, your regulatory affairs team, etc… Also, be the first to raise your hand to help on special projects and new initiatives that are important to your legal teams.
Legal Role Rotations: A great best practice for any legal team is to periodically move their lawyers around to work in various different practice groups so they can gain new skills and become even more valuable. As legal teams embrace a “hybrid” or “remote” work environment moving forward, there will be greater opportunities for in-house legal departments to more seamlessly rotate their lawyers in this fashion. One of the lawyers on my team recently supported our partner group team earlier this fiscal year, she is now back with my team and her six month rotation supporting a different set of clients – and being exposed to a different set of business/legal issues – has made her even more valuable to our team.
Make Others Better: In-house counsel should view themselves as “coaches” to their teammates. Look for opportunities to always making your teammates better by proactively sharing your knowledge, mentoring others, offering them feedback, collaborating effectively and being a true team player in helping them problem solve issues for their clients. Taking the time to invest in your teammates and making them great provides important positive impact for your entire legal team – and makes you even more valuable.
Online Training Opportunities: Continue to build your skills on a remote basis by taking advantage of virtual trainings that your employer or others may offer. For instance, LinkedIn offers terrific resources for you to gain more valuable skills so that you can better serve your clients.
Become Certified: Consider obtaining industry/legal practice-type certifications that require you to become more skilled in a particular area and which are relevant to the work that your legal department performs. For example, the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) is a leading privacy group that offers several certifications in the area of data privacy. Also, don’t be shy and seeking reimbursement from your legal team for the associated costs in such certification(s) by building a thoughtful business case as to why such certification(s) are relevant to your job/legal team.
After this season Mr. Baez will become a “free agent” – meaning that teams other than the Chicago Cubs can offer him a contract for his services as a ballplayer. At the time that I wrote this blog, the New York Mets baseball team offered a $325 Million 10-Year contract to another comparable baseball player named Francisco Lindor – who plays the same primary position of shortstop as Mr. Baez – but Mr. Lindor is technically not as versatile as Mr. Baez. It’s just a matter of time before Mr. Baez’s versatility and value will financially pay off for him and make him very wealthy. As in-house counsel, it’s smart for us to try to be like Javy Baez on the legal playing field.
When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, Air Supply was a popular music duo with songs like “Lost in Love,” “All Out of Love,” and “Even the Nights are Better.” Nowadays, another phrase with the word “supply” in it – supply chain – is becoming popular across Corporate America and for in-house counsel.
Last month, President Biden signed an Executive Order on America’s supply chains. This Executive Order is a must-read for all in-house counsel, it underscores how companies are very reliant on third parties to enable solutions for their customers and that in-house lawyers play an important role to help ensure that their companies’ supply chain are resilient and secure.
Let’s first provide some clarity as to what is meant by a supply chain. A recent post in Supply Chain Digital offered this excellent definition of a supply chain: “A supply chain is defined as the entire process of making and selling commercial goods, including every stage from the supply of materials and the manufacture of the goods through to their distribution and sale.”
The focus of this Executive Order involves a review of key supply chains with the longer term goals of the United States becoming less dependent on foreign goods and to help bolster American manufacturing. The Executive Order involves a 100-day review of products in these four areas: semiconductors, high-capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals and critical minerals/related materials. In addition, there will be yearlong reviews of six industry sectors.
Without a doubt, supply-chain law is a growing legal practice area that all corporate counsel will need to become increasingly conversant in so they can provide high impact legal services to their clients.
Here’s a list of considerations for in-house legal teams to keep top of mind as their deliver supply chain-related legal support to their clients:
Procurement is Paramount: Nearly every organization has a procurement or purchasing group function that has primary responsibility for establishing relationships with suppliers and other entities that are part of a supply chain. In my experience, sometimes the legal support associated with this group has not been as highly valued when compared with other in-house legal practice areas. As we see more focus on the potential opportunities and challenges associated with supply chains, it’s important for all legal teams to invest the appropriate amount of legal resources, time and attention to properly support supply chain-related legal work.
Reviewing & Onboarding Supply Chain Partners: A variety of legal entities can be part of a supply chain network and they all need to partner well together to help ensure success. Legal teams can help their supply chain groups by assisting in the appropriate vetting of supply chain partners prior to consummating a relationship with them. Since many lawyers have deep skills in the area of due diligence, they are in a unique position to help their clients identify any potential “red flags” with potential supply chain partners. Consider developing a scalable and detailed review process akin to a “checklist” when evaluating potential members of your supply chain. Also be sure to develop an appropriate onboarding process for new supply chain partners so they can learn more about your business and are set up for success.
Trustworthiness of Supply Chain Partners: A wise person once said that “trust cannot be claimed – it must be earned.” Given the proliferation of data privacy laws, the increased boldness of cybercriminals and the fact that technology and data are playing a bigger role in our lives, companies need to clearly understand the steps that supply chain partners – and members of their own supply chain – take to properly secure data. Be sure to include your data privacy, cybersecurity and compliance experts in the process for determining whether or not you can truly trust members of your supply chain to protect the highly important data that may be shared with them and that they will share with others in your supply chain network. It is absolutely critical for members of your supply chain to earn your company’s trust on a constant basis as it relates to data security.
Thoughtful Agreements: Be sure to establish the appropriate written agreements with your supply chain partners that are comprehensive enough to address the totality of your business relationship and are also very clear and straightforward. Organizations should develop standard template agreements to use with their supply chain partners – as well as “fallback”/alternative provisions to use as needed. Think about incorporating your companies’ code of ethics/integrity principles as part of those agreements. As the business changes, also refresh those standard agreements as needed.
Deepening Relationships with your Supply Chain: It’s important to partner closely with the members of your company’s supply chain – especially as they may also be your customers and competitors. Designate senior business leaders at your company who can serve in “Executive Sponsor” roles to the individual members of your supply chain. Perhaps there are also opportunities to convene quarterly business reviews or “check-ins” with members of your supply chain so that you can deepen relationships and mitigate the likelihood of any potential business or legal issues from occurring.
Breaking Down Silos & Center of Excellence: Often times, many dispersed company employees and teams are involved in building supply chains for their respective organizations. As a result, organizations may become siloed in their approaches for managing their respective supply chains and may not properly collaborate. Look for opportunities to centralize how you work with your supply chains, actively share supply chain best practices/lessons learned and identify lawyers and business leaders who can serve as your company’s supply chain “Center of Excellence.”
Responsible Sourcing: Companies should have high standards as to what they should be expecting from their supply chain – especially as it relates to human rights, labor, safety, health and ethical considerations. In the words of Brene Brown, “clear is kind,” so be sure to drive absolute clarity with supply chain members about those expectations. Also, from a corporate social responsibility perspective, companies should be transparent to the public about their focus on responsible sourcing.
Sustainability: Companies across many industries are increasingly focused on sustainability and reducing their carbon emissions as a strategic business imperative. We may also see further regulation in the sustainability space. As you build and evolve your supply chain, consider partnering with companies who are proactively committed to environmental and sustainability considerations and learn from them.
Diversity & Inclusion: As many of us know, diverse and inclusive teams consistently perform non-diverse and less-inclusive teams. Driving greater diversity and inclusion within your supply chains will result in better business outcomes. In addition, as you develop your supply chain network make sure that you have a deep enough and broad enough network so that you are not reliant on just one – or a few – companies. Make sure that your network is well-represented from a geographic diversity perspective and ideally are not based in just one region or country.
Leverage Trusted Technology: As the supply chain area grows, increasingly there are leading technology solutions that can help enable your supply chain to become more productive and resilient. Think about opportunities for deploying highly trusted technology solutions that are rich with product features to help manage your supply chain operations. For instance, Microsoft Dynamics 365 provides cloud-based solutions that are focused on enhancing a company’s supply chain resiliency and agility.
Every company needs to be increasingly focused on their respective supply chains. As in-house counsel, we are in a unique position to help our business clients effectively navigate the growing complexities of the supply chain space.
There’s so much that we can all learn from the iconic Hank Aaron – who sadly passed away last month at the age of 86. When I discovered my favorite sport of baseball as a young boy, Hank Aaron was one of the first baseball stars that I looked up to, I proudly collected his baseball cards (and the picture above is my 1956 baseball card of Mr. Aaron) and in my opinion he is the greatest baseball player ever.
As this month is Black History Month, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon the legacy of Hank Aaron. Since his nickname was “The Hammer,” here’s six H-A-M-M-E-R leadership lessons that all legal and business professionals can learn from Mr. Aaron.
H = Humility: As a high school kid I remember meeting Mr. Aaron at a baseball card show at the Westchester County Center in the 1980s shortly after his Baseball Hall of Fame induction so that I could obtain his autograph. Although I only had a very brief interaction with him, he was very gracious and welcoming. Every since his passing so many people have also expressed similar stories about Mr. Aaron as he was universally humble and nice to everyone he met whether it be a “VIP,” the baseball clubhouse attendant or an ordinary fan like me.
In Corporate America it’s important for everyone to treat others with respect and decency – regardless of your title or position. This is especially important for leaders as we all need to set the proverbial “tone at the top” about embracing inclusivity in our respective workplace cultures. In my experience, the very best leaders are the ones who are highly approachable, humble, down to earth and are genuinely interested in the views of their teammates, customers and partners. If a legend like Mr. Aaron can treat a then high school sophomore like me with respect, then there’s no excuses for you not doing the same with others in the workplace – and in our personal lives.
A = Authenticity: As a baseball player Mr. Aaron was not considered as “flashy” as some of the other baseball stars of his era like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente. Nor was he as “flamboyant” as another baseball legend named Babe Ruth – the highly popular player he surpassed in 1974 as the all-time Major League Baseball home run king. Since Mr. Aaron played his entire career in the “smaller-market” cities of Milwaukee and Atlanta and he only won one World Series early in his career in 1957 (where he was the Most Valuable Player that year and led the Milwaukee Braves to a world championship with a high batting average of .393 and 11 hits, including a triple, three home runs and seven runs batter in), he did not receive the same notoriety and appreciation in the media as some of his peers. However, Mr. Aaron always remained his true and authentic self – both on and off the baseball field. As a result, he gained universal admiration from his fellow players.
It’s important for leaders in the workplace to be real and authentic so they can command the necessary respect from their teammates. The best leaders are hard-working, transparent, lead by example and avoid being fake. Transformational leaders are highly credible because they are true and legitimate just like Mr. Aaron.
M = Mentorship: Mr. Aaron had a long reputation for taking his baseball teammates under his wing, mentoring them and making them better players – and most importantly better people. One example is the current and highly successful Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker who played with Mr. Aaron as a member of the Atlanta Braves for six seasons from 1968-1974. After Mr. Aaron’s passing, Mr. Baker released the following statement about his relationship with Mr. Aaron: “Hank Aaron was the most important influence on my life, next to my Dad. He was the best person that I ever knew and the truest and most honest person that I ever knew. He taught me how to be a man and how to be a proud African-American. He taught me how important it was to give back to the community and he inspired me to become an entrepreneur. Hank impacted my life, my family and my world, both on and off the field. He was a great man.”
Always be a “Hank Aaron” with your teammates – especially during these challenging times where most of us are working remotely and need help more than ever before. Look for opportunities to coach, train, advise and mentor your work colleagues and to serve as a “big brother” or “big sister” to them. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “”Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?””
M = Model: At a private party in 2014 in Washington, DC to celebrate Mr. Aaron’s 80th birthday at a hotel overlooking the White House, then Attorney General Eric Holder gestured toward a window and offered this giant compliment to Mr. Aaron: “The young man who lives right over there (referencing President Barack Obama), his path was made easier by this man.” Mr. Aaron was the quintessential role model and inspired others to reach their goals.
As leaders in the workplace we have the responsibilities of serving as great role models. Our teams, our customers and our partners are all watching us and our actions will speak louder than our words. Mr. Aaron exemplified the ultimate in class, dignity, integrity and grace. Be sure to model the same values in your workplace.
E = Excellence: My Aaron’s accomplishments on the baseball field are truly incredibly as he relentlessly performed at an extremely high level for such a long period of time. His baseball statistics are eye-popping and here’s a sampling of them: he owns Major League Baseball (MLB) records for 2,297 career runs batted in, 6,856 career total bases, 1,477 career extra base hits and 25 all-star appearances. From 1955-1970 Mr. Aaron played in 145 games or more in every single season (the number of games per season was 154 until 1962 when it then changed to 162 games). Finally, in my opinion he is the “true” MLB home runs leader with 755 as the player who surpassed him in this category in 2007 – Barry Bonds – has long been tainted as using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs)
Always aspire to be consistently excellent like Mr. Aaron – both as a leader and in your craft. Of course, maintaining such a high level of excellence year in and year out in the workplace like Mr. Aaron did on the baseball field is an extremely difficult thing to do. It requires you to have a growth mindset, to be a lifelong learner and to embrace change as needed. Mr. Aaron once said, “Failure will never stand in the way of success if you learn from it.”
R = Resilience: Unfortunately, Mr. Aaron faced a tremendous amount of racism throughout his life. He initially experienced discrimination as a young boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama. As a minor league player for the Jacksonville Braves in the South Atlantic League, he was often separated from his team while traveling due to racial segregation and Jim Crow Laws. Towards the end of career as he was nearing Babe Ruth’s career home runs record, he received lots of hate mail and was subject to death threats. Despite all of the ugly and pervasive racism that he faced, Mr. Aaron still persevered and thrived both on and off the baseball field.
Mr. Aaron’s resiliency during the most difficult of times is truly remarkable. We can all learn from his tremendous strength as we face challenges both in the workplace and in our personal lives. Mr. Aaron’s grit and courage are an inspiration to all of us and here is one of my favorite quotes from Mr. Aaron: “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
Hank Aaron was much more than a legendary baseball player. He was also an American hero. Let’s all continue to learn from his incredible legacy.
Last week I learned that one of my senior business clients – who is a Microsoft Corporate Vice President – took on a new leadership position within Microsoft. While I was initially disappointed since she’s an outstanding leader and I worked hard to build a trusted advisor relationship with her, I also know that this is simply part of the ever-changing business environments that we work in. As in-house lawyers we need to constantly adapt to best serve our clients.
Building a new relationship with a senior business client presents a real opportunity that in-house counsel need to take advantage of – especially if it’s someone that you have never partnered with in the past. Also, we only have one opportunity to make a positive first impression.
Here’s some tips on how to commence a trusted advisor relationship with a new business client:
Say Congrats: Be sure to extend congratulations to both your outgoing client and incoming client. Tell your outgoing client that you wish her/him the best of luck in the new role and that you hope to partner with them again in the future – which is a distinct possibility so you want to continue to maintain a positive relationship with her/him.
For your incoming client reach out to that person via email/call, introduce yourself, extend congratulations and let them know that you are excited to partner with them. If you send an email perhaps also consider adding a link to your LinkedIn profile so that she/he can learn more about you in case you have not worked with that person in the past. Also be sure to connect with your new client via LinkedIn if you aren’t already connected.
Do Some Reconnaissance: Try to learn some information about your new client. If your in-house legal teammates and other clients have worked with your new client in the past be sure to reach out to them for their thoughts about her/him and ask them for their opinion on how best to serve your new client in your role as corporate counsel. Also, spend the time to get to know that person by checking out her/his LinkedIn/Twitter profiles, background, posts, etc…..Perhaps you can identify the areas that you have in common with your new client which can serve as a foundation for building a new business relationship.
Schedule an Introductory Meeting: Be proactive to schedule an initial meeting with your new client for no longer than 15-30 minutes. During that meeting try to cover these areas:
- Offer a brief perspective about your background, role and your legal team. Consider also developing a one page “get to know me” slide like the one which I have created about myself immediately below and which I share with my new business clients so they can learn something very quickly about my background.
- Describe the various ways in which you and your team can provide high value and impact to your new client and his/her team moving forward that is aligned to their key business objectives.
- Ask your new client about her/his previous experiences in working with legal teams and whether she/he can provide you with any feedback on how you and the legal team can best serve her/him moving forward.
- Let your client know the best way to reach you moving forward and always be sure to share your cell phone number so she/he can quickly contact you as needed.
- Try to find out about your new client’s preferred mode of communicating so that you can tailor your mode of communication to fit the needs of your new client. Also, ask if your new business client would be willing to convene monthly 1:1s so the two of you can stay well connected.
- If your new client is new to your company also offer to help her/him as part of their official onboarding process.
Befriend Your New Client’s Admin/Chief of Staff: Always be sure to be super nice and friendly to the Admin/Chief of Staff of your new client. These folks are often the “gateway” to your new client and your new client will rely upon them immensely. Don’t be shy in asking the Admin/Chief of Staff to be included in your new client’s leadership team meetings, key email distribution lists/aliases, Microsoft Teams channels, etc….so that you can gain a better understanding of what is top of mind for your new client and are well positioned to deliver high value and impact.
Listen & Learn: In my experience with clients it’s always important to take the necessary time to actively listen and learn from them. Each senior executive will have her/his own leadership style and it’s very important early on in your relationship to thoughtfully absorb your new client’s way of thinking and to try to understand what is most important to her/him. Listen more and speak less – especially with new clients.
Get “Quick Wins” to Earn Trust: Whenever you have a new client it is so incredibly important to provide him/her with “white glove” legal support so that you can get off to a fast start in the relationship, begin to earn your client’s trust, demonstrate high value and make a highly positive first impression. When your new client reaches out to you be sure to respond immediately and provide your new client with clear, easily digestible and practical legal advice and counsel. Finally, always embrace a customer obsession mindset with your new client.
As we all know change is not easy – especially when you need to build a relationship with new clients. However, having the privilege to serve new clients and earning their trust provides in-house lawyers with a great opportunity for you and your legal department to demonstrate positive impact and move your organization forward. Be sure to capitalize on these opportunities!
As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and reflect upon his legacy, it’s an important reminder that the legal industry has more work to do to advance diversity and inclusion.
We all know about the continued lack of minorities, women, people of color, disabled people and other underrepresented groups in the law – whether it be as employees or in senior positions of authority and influence.
As we think about opportunities to advance greater diversity and inclusion in the legal industry, here’s three points for us to keep in mind:
The Important Business Case for D&I: There have been plenty of science and studies by leading management consulting firms that have demonstrated time and time again that diverse teams outperform teams that are less diverse. I’ve seen this firsthand over the years by being part of and leading an incredible team of high-performing diverse lawyers and legal professionals at Microsoft who continue to deliver high-impact legal support to our sales, marketing and services teams across the United States in our constantly changing technology marketplace. More importantly they have also demonstrated remarkable grit and resiliency during the incredibly difficult times that we have experienced as a society over the past year.
Let’s all remember that while embracing diversity and inclusion for any organization is the morally right thing to do, it’s actually the very smart thing to do. As teams who work in the legal space think about how they can better serve their customers, ignite innovation and be more competitive in their marketplaces, one of the most important investments they can make is in recruiting, developing and retaining a diverse and inclusive workforce.
Please Don’t Ignore Hispanics: Hispanics make up 18% of the population in the United States and they are the largest minority group in our great country. Of course, as we all know, Hispanics don’t make up 18% of “Big Law” law firm partners and General Counsels. In fact, despite the existence of terrific Hispanic talent in the legal area, an argument can be made that Hispanics don’t seem to be actively considered for key positions – especially for senior level roles.
As a proud Hispanic whose Grandparents were born on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico and migrated to the United States mainland, I encourage law firms and legal departments to accelerate the visibility of Hispanics, provide them with opportunities to lead and to please avoid ignoring them – especially since customers are increasingly of Hispanic origin and it’s estimated that Hispanics will make up a quarter of the US population by 2045.
In addition, if we are to see improved and sustained inclusion of Hispanics in the legal world, it will be incumbent upon Hispanics to do more. We need to be bolder, be more visible, be better organized, help each other, build relationships with key career sponsors, learn from others, speak up, and amplify the positive impact we drive as legal leaders to our respective management teams.
Let’s Accelerate & Embrace Change: Ever since I started my legal career over 20 years ago as a young lawyer in the IBM legal department, progress on diversity and inclusion in the legal industry over that period of time has remained slow. What that tells me is that if we want to truly advance greater inclusion in the legal vertical we need to change what we have been doing, learn from others, be more empathetic, try new ideas and not fear making any mistakes. Continue Reading D&I Observations on Dr. MLK Jr’s Birthday
After a very challenging 2020, it’s great to see 2021. Happy New Year!
While I know that many folks make official New Years resolutions, I have never been much of a New Years resolutions type of guy. We need to constantly change as lawyers or we risk irrelevancy – and the same can also be said for our personal lives. From my perspective, a specific date is not needed for us to change or to try something new – as the folks at Nike say “Just Do It!
That said, here’s 3 things that I think we can all do better as lawyers as we begin 2021:
- Wellness, Wellness and More Wellness: As I’ve written about before wellness is our best investment – and to say that the pandemic has underscored the importance of staying healthy is a huge understatement. Continue to put your health first and think about what more you can do to improve your mental and physical wellness.
I have recently changed up my workout routine as I have pivoted from jogging 3 days a week to getting outside early in the morning every day for an 1-1.5 hour “power walk” and increasing it to 2+ hours per day on the weekends. Doing so has improved my mental wellness as it ensures that I get out of my WFH environment every day (even in the cold Western Suburbs of Chicago) and it is less taxing on my body when compared to jogging.
- Technology, Technology, Technology & Trust: As we learned during 2020 with the pandemic, technology is playing a bigger and more impactful role in our lives. I believe that technology is a lawyer’s best friend and we all need to continue to put technology to work for us and our clients in 2021. Also be sure to partner with technology providers that you can truly trust with your valuable data – especially given the critical importance of data privacy and cybersecurity-related considerations.
- Make Others Better via Greater Knowledge Sharing: Many legal teams unfortunately remain very stuck in their silos. Leading technology tools like Microsoft Teams enables legal departments and law firms to share information seamlessly, to “crowdsource” problem solving and to get out of our silos. Look for more opportunities on your legal team to help your teammates, help your clients and to demonstrate your leadership by constantly sharing relevant information, best practices and lessons learned. Knowledge is power and the more key information that we can share, the better.
I’m also planning to write more blogs posts in 2021 on various topics at the intersection of law, business and technology – and perhaps a few regarding my favorite sport of baseball as I view baseball as a “microcosm” of life.
Let’s be sure to get off to a “Fast Start” in 2021 and please stay safe and healthy!
Yesterday I learned of the unfortunate death of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro. Sadly, Mr. Niekro is the 7th Hall of Fame player that has died in 2020 and a few months ago I wrote about two of those baseball immortals here. I’m a big baseball fan and every time I learn about the passing of a ballplayer that I watched and grew up to as a kid, part of my youth also passes away.
Mr. Niekro had an incredible career as he won 318 games (and he won his 300th game with my beloved NY Yankees) as a pitcher and he did so in a highly unconventional fashion. Instead of throwing the typical repertoire of fastballs, sliders, curveballs, change-ups, sinkerballs, screwballs, split-fingered fastballs, etc….that most pitchers throw, he relied primarily on a very unique pitch known as the knuckleball that he and his younger brother Joe Niekro – another highly successful major league baseball pitcher who won 221 games – both learned to throw from their father growing up in Ohio. The knuckleball pitch requires a specialized grip on the ball, is very hard to master and there have only been a score of knuckleballers across baseball in the past 50 years or so. Knuckleballs can move a lot when they slowly “flutter” towards home plate and they can be very difficult for opposing batters to hit if thrown correctly (and if they are thrown incorrectly they are like batting practice for major league hitters).
As I reflect upon Mr. Niekro’s career, here’s some learnings for us as lawyers and business professionals:
Be Authentic and a “Maverick”: Mr. Niekro’s highly successful baseball career was premised upon doing something entirely different from his peers by throwing his signature knuckleball pitch. His “maverick” pitching style as a knuckleballer provided him with a competitive differentiator over others. Not only did he have incredible success as a pitcher, but since the knuckleball did not exact a toll on his pitching arm like other harder thrown pitches do he was able to be even more valuable, durable and versatile to his teams by pitching on short rest, pitching many complete games, serving as both a starter and a relief pitcher and pitching in the major leagues for an incredible 24 seasons.
In our Corporate America environment where so many people sound the same and look the same, think about what separates you from the masses as you deliver differentiated value to your clients. As you serve your clients don’t be fearful in being a so-called “maverick” who generates fresh ideas, is willing to think differently and is unafraid at throwing proverbial knuckleballs to opposing counsel that are hard for them to handle.
Recognize the Key Skill of Getting Things Done: Throughout Mr. Niekro’s career he was not a flashy pitcher, he played on many low-performing Atlanta Braves teams in a small market and was overshadowed by other great “power” pitchers during his generation like Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, etc….who received more attention, more accolades, more Cy Young Awards and more World Series trophies than he did. In fact, some did not think that Mr. Niekro was even Hall of Fame worthy. However, year in and year out he continued to do his job under the radar, at a very high level and kept amassing pitching victories over a very lengthy 24 year career.
Many of us have teammates on our own teams who continually deliver high value to their clients every day – but perhaps they aren’t noticed by their management because they don’t crave attention, aren’t provided high “visibility” opportunities, aren’t interested in playing office politics, etc… Mr. Niekro’s somewhat “quiet” yet long career is a great reminder for leaders at law firms and at in-house legal departments that the so-called “lunch pail” type of lawyers and business professionals in our workplaces who may be behind the scenes, who don’t complain, who make others better and most importantly – know how to get things done – should not be forgotten. Instead, they should be celebrated and appropriately recognized.
Avoid Unconscious Bias: I remember watching Mr. Niekro pitch during the early 1980s when he was with the Braves courtesy of the TV station TBS at that time and when he played with my New York Yankees in 1984 and 1985. Quite frankly if you ever saw Mr. Niekro on the pitching mound he could have been mistaken for someone who was playing on a weekend softball team of “over the hill” players. Although he may have never looked or pitched like a prototypical major league pitcher, he consistently fooled hitters throughout his career enroute to 318 pitching wins with his very hard to hit knuckleball. Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks once said, “He simply destroys your timing with that knuckleball. It comes flying in there dipping and hopping like crazy and you just can’t hit it.”
Mr. Niekro’s career is a great reminder that we should never judge a book by its cover and that we need to avoid our own unconscious bias about others. Just because someone in our opinion may not look or speak the part of an outstanding lawyer or business leader doesn’t mean they are incapable of being an outstanding lawyer or business leader.
Age + Experience = an Asset and Not a Liability: Incredibly, Mr. Niekro pitched until he was 48 years of age into the 1987 baseball season. In addition, he won 121 games after he turned 40 – which is a major league record. Also while winning 318 games over 24 seasons, only 3 other major pitchers ever pitched more than Mr. Niekro’s 5,404 total innings. When Mr. Niekro was 40 years old in 1979 he threw 23 complete games – nowadays it is rare to see a pitcher even throw 1 or 2 complete 9 inning games during a typical season.
Mr. Niekro’s longevity in a game that can be unforgiving for players who lose their timing, great eyesight, speed and ability to throw as they age is simply remarkable. In Corporate America where ageism is a reality, Mr. Niekro’s career reminds us that older workers can still provide high value to their organizations as their age and that their experience, guile, confidence and ability to mentor others are very important assets. In addition, as we think about advancing diversity and inclusion within our respective organizations, we should remember that older employees contribute to that diversity and inclusion – and to the success of organizations.
My condolences to the entire Niekro family and may Mr. Niekro AKA “Knucksie” rest in peace.
After an unprecedented and highly tumultuous year in 2020 we are all looking forward to a new year in 2021! 2021 will continue to present important opportunities and challenges for in-house counsel. Here’s my “Top 5” focus areas for corporate counsel and their legal departments in 2021:
Continued Covid-19 Impact: While we end 2020 with the beginning of the extensive Covid-19 vaccination process across the world, there will be no vaccine per se for the continued legal issues involving the pandemic. As many organizations prepare for an eventual return of employees back to the physical workplace, a hybrid work environment or even a totally remote work experience, in-house counsel will need to continue to help their clients navigate thru a variety of employment law related considerations. In addition, we will probably begin to see various types of Covid-19 related litigation in our court systems as they try to resume their normal schedules sometime during 2021 as well as continued commercial, employment and other types of Covid-19 centric disputes. Hopefully, industries that have been hit very hard by the pandemic – such as the travel, transportation and hospitality industries – will begin to recover with increased opportunities for their legal teams to help drive positive impact. In addition, US federal Covid-19-related stimulus packages during 2020 such as the CARES Act should create more business opportunities and legal work in key sectors such as healthcare and the public sector. Finally, the “grind” of the pandemic will continue to exact its toll upon the wellness of in-house counsel and their legal departments.
It’s Data Privacy & Cybersecurity All the Time: As technology plays a larger role in our personal and professional lives, issues pertaining to the protection of that technology and its associated data are of paramount importance. At the same time we are seeing more privacy laws being enacted, regulators are become proactive in enforcing those laws and cybercriminals (including nation-states) are unfortunately continuing to weaponize technology to wreak havoc on everyone.
As this intersection of technology, data, privacy and cybersecurity becomes increasingly complex and incredibly relevant to all organizations, this means that in-house lawyers need to “skill-up” in the data privacy and cybersecurity areas. In my view data privacy and data security are becoming core legal skills that all corporate counsel need to be conversant in as they are highly relevant for virtually any in-house counsel role. Here’s some steps that in-house counsel can take to serve as more impactful data privacy and cybersecurity advisors to their respective organizations:
- Staying abreast of the ever-changing data privacy and cybersecurity law landscape and its potential impact to your business;
- Monitoring and learning from the increasing number of cybersecurity and ransomware incidents that are negatively impacting businesses and governments across the globe;
- Helping your clients conduct thoughtful due diligence on your potential technology providers and supply-chain to make sure that your can trust them with securing your data;
- Building deep and trusted legal advisor relationships with senior and influential clients such as your Chief Privacy Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Compliance Officer and their respective teams; and
- Becoming a data privacy and cybersecurity “patriot” by actively shaping and delivering practical data privacy and cybersecurity training to your clients so that you can help create and maintain a data protection-first and cybersecurity-first culture within your organization.
Increased US Regulatory Compliance: After a long and contentious US Presidential election we will have a new occupant in the White House in less than one month. While it will be interesting to see the impact of the new Biden administration on Corporate America, Wall Street and the various business industry sectors, it may be the case that we will see more activity in the regulatory space via new executive orders, the enactment of new laws (which may depend on which political party winds up controlling the Senate and whether there’s any appetite between our political parties to come to consensus on various issues) and more regulatory enforcement. In-house counsel will need to consider the potential proactive regulatory impact of the new Biden administration on their organizations and their legal teams/government affairs teams will need to look for opportunities to build positive relationships with the incoming administration, governmental agencies and key regulators.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is Here to Stay: Over the past several years ESG-related considerations have become increasingly important for businesses and there’s a wealth of opportunities for in-house counsel to positively impact the ESG space. In fact, in-house legal departments may want to consider creating their own specialized ESG-focused practice group in this area if they have not already done so. With the new Biden administration there’s a good chance we will see more active enforcement of the environmental laws and a significant focus on climate control initiatives. More and more leading companies with strong brand recognition have unveiled their efforts to reduce their own carbon emissions and the Chief Sustainability Officer role has the become a newer and highly visible C-Level role in Corporate America. As our society continues to be engaged in important discussions on social issues – such as the continued racial and gender inequality in our country – companies need to be better equipped in both proactively responding to and meaningfully addressing such key issues within their own corporate environments. Increasingly, in-house legal teams need to serve as a smart “sounding board” to help their companies in carefully considering the potential external social impact of their company’s decisions. The area of corporate governance is another important element of ESG – and especially as it relates to companies advancing greater diversity and inclusion in the ranks of their senior leadership and Board of Directors.
Reimaging the Legal Department: The pandemic has forced in-house legal departments to embrace change and leverage leading technology to enable remote work in order to remain highly productive. As a result, in-house counsel and their legal teams have demonstrated their ability to be resilient and to change the way they work to serve their clients during one of the most difficult periods that we have ever faced in our society. I think this coming year provides legal teams with opportunities to hit a “reset” on how their legal department operates and to accelerate their ability to adapt so they can drive greater positive impact for their clients in our ever-changing technology and data-first post pandemic world. As you build and evolve your legal teams to become “world-class” to deliver legal services with greater speed, agility and smarter risk-taking, consider focusing upon the following key areas:
- Identifying more opportunities to work smarter (and not necessarily harder) to free up space to perform more high-value work;
- Measuring your legal team’s success in terms of delivering clear, positive and tangible business impact to your clients;
- Improving your understanding of your client’s changing needs;
- Leveraging highly trusted technology and data insights to better serve you and your clients;
- Driving a stronger culture within your legal team to collaborate, share knowledge, exchange lessons learned, and to truly break down silos;
- Creating superior psychological safety, wellness, diversity and inclusion on your team;
- Requiring greater value from your outside counsel law firms, alternative legal services providers, legal tech companies and other legal service providers; and
- Re-recruiting and rewarding your best talent.
In our increasingly complex and uncertain world, now more than ever our clients need high impact and practical legal guidance that is delivered with speed from their in-house legal teams. Always strive to deliver high value to your business clients and embrace change so you can better serve them.