Capturing Your “Innerpreneur”

By Jim Middlemiss July 4, 20174 July 2017

Capturing Your “Innerpreneur”


Sébastien Guénette had a crash course on how to think like an entrepreneur, and the Director, Legal at the Canadian operations of Japan Tobacco International (JTI) says he’s a better in-house lawyer because of it.

“Being in the shoes of an entrepreneur for a week and taking your legal hat off was a very good exercise,” Guénette says of a course that his company’s legal department put on in Madrid for 80 of its senior in-house lawyers two years ago.

One of the big benefits for him was learning to “take the risk to make decisions, even if the data is not entirely complete, which business people often do, but it is very counter-intuitive for a lawyer to do that.”

In fact, it was the whole approach to risk management that stood out the most for him as the contrast between how lawyers approach problems versus entrepreneurs. “We are very good at raising red flags, and they are very good at going around flags. Learning how to be creative was a very good takeaway for me,” Guénette observes.

The legal entrepreneurship program grew from the efforts of Wade Wright, JTI’s Senior Vice-President Legal & Scientific Regulatory Affairs, who is pushing his legal team to become more solutions-oriented so that the department is seen as a competitive advantage within the organization. Olivier Blanc, JTI’s Geneva-based Assistant General Counsel, Business Development and Operations, was tasked with creating the program.

He worked with the London Business School to put together a week-long event that included a blend of workshops, sessions and presentations on everything from leadership to risk management. There were also discussions on the mindset of entrepreneurs, how you foster entrepreneurism in an organization, and how company guidelines and policies can either enhance or impede such efforts.

The program had the support of the company’s CEO and was rooted in an earlier survey the legal department had undertaken to see how the lawyers perceived their efforts versus how others in the organization perceived them. The law department learned it had to be more solution-oriented and was looking for ways to get closer to the business lines.

“The idea was to have lawyers doing much more than being lawyers, but being real entrepreneurs,” in a bid to take them to the “next level,” Blanc explains.

Blanc says the efforts have helped move the needle on how the legal department is viewed internally by the business lines. The feedback is that “we are truly business advisors with a legal background instead of only lawyers.”

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

While JTI’s efforts to build more “entrepreneurial lawyers” might seem extreme to some, the reality is that the legal education industry does a poor job of grooming lawyers to be business people. Rather, law schools focus on the technical art of lawyering. Therefore, unless you enroll in the CCCA’s Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel, pursue an MBA or take business courses in your undergrad, you will learn little about the process of business. Yet, it’s in-house counsel’s job to advise the business minds on how to jump through the legal hoops to get their latest product or service to market. After all, isn't that what most companies strive to do?

So training lawyers on the entrepreneurial mindset isn’t that far-fetched.

In fact, a growing number of law schools in the U.S. are creating entrepreneurship clinics to bring out the “inner entrepreneurs” of their law students and expose them to early-stage and start-up companies that need legal help, notes the Financial Times in a November 2016 article.

“Law students are really concerned with developing entrepreneurial skills,” says lawyer Dana Thompson, Founding Director of Michigan Law School’s Entrepreneurship Clinic. “We encourage our students to understand what the entrepreneurial mindset is so they can become better lawyers and counsel to clients.”

Developing entrepreneurial skills is something that law schools need to get better at doing, she adds.

However, should in-house legal departments be focused on such efforts? Rees Morrison, a former in-house lawyer who is now a consultant at Altman Weil in the U.S., questions whether it's a good use of the lawyer’s time to have them trying to develop products and services. “That's what business people should be doing,” he says.

Moreover, the traditional role of a lawyer as the legal guardian who tries to minimize risk plays against the traditional role of an entrepreneur, which is usually someone willing to push against the grain and take on undue risk.

Take Uber, for example. It’s hard to believe that many lawyers would have green-lighted a company whose core service butted up against long established regulatory regimes around taxi services. The regulatory risk was and still is huge.

Moreover, Altman’s Morrison denotes one key difference in the DNA between lawyers and entrepreneurs. “Most entrepreneurs fail,” he notes. Lawyers, he says, don’t have the same appetite for swallowing risk. “You don't have a career as a lawyer if you fail on legal issues too often.”

It’s true that lawyers are good at spotting risks—law schools drill that in. However, it’s the ability to overcome the fear of assuming risk that often separates entrepreneurs from lawyers (or most other occupations for that matter).

Interestingly, though, if you examine the character traits and skill sets of successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, there are many similarities, suggesting that lawyers might be more in tune with entrepreneurs than at first blush.

In 2015, the Pennsylvania Bar Institute (PBI) identified 17 skills shown by successful lawyers. They include things such as self-motivation and self-direction, dedication to life-long learning, resilience, analytical thinking, good communication skills, leadership capabilities, problem-solving skills, risk management abilities, strategic thinking about client’s needs, financial literacy and accountability.

Contrast that with entrepreneurs. In a March 2015 article for, author Thomas Smale identified 10 traits of successful entrepreneurs. Some are similar to lawyers, such as they are determined, crave learning, are passionate, understand financial matters and can tackle risk management. They also exhibited confidence, as do most lawyers. However, there were some additional traits not identified in the PBI’s list of traits: entrepreneurs understand that failure is part of the game, can adapt, are good networkers, and have the ability to sell and promote.

It is the latter traits of networking, selling and promoting, that lawyers often lack—rainmakers excluded—and which become key stumbling blocks when in-house counsel are looking to transition from a pure legal advisor role to a trusted member of the decision making team.

Find the Opportunities

Developing a crash course on how entrepreneurs think is certainly one way to skin the cat, but there are other methods being used in corporate law departments to help lawyers develop what amounts to better business skills.

Take John West, who was recently appointed Senior Vice-President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Canada Post, which has been forced to reinvent itself as customers abandon traditional letter mail services.

West quickly determined that his legal team of 25 lawyers had great skills and deep knowledge about the company and the challenges it faced in its move to become a solutions provider in the areas of delivery, marketing and e-commerce. He felt his job was to make sure the lawyers were “given opportunities to step out of the shadows.”

“Over the course of time, they had become a very reactive group,” he says. He wanted them to become more proactive, and gave his team the green light to “look for opportunities to get out with the client groups.”

He says the objective is to “push them forward so they will enhance their profile and better integrate with the corporation. It’s about stepping away from the notion of being a cost centre and instilling the notion that we are a value added service.”

 “You have to make an effort to learn the business so you can be relevant to your client,” he says, adding, “It’s not enough to be a good lawyer.”

Canada Post is a leader in e-commerce fulfillment, which means the company must have a grasp on things such as privacy law—an emerging and rapidly developing field—as well as e-commerce. “Our lawyers have had to step up and they have done so,” he says.

Bring Solutions

Sometimes it's the little things a law department can do that can make a difference and help stoke the entrepreneurial fires within an organization. At the National Bank of Canada (NBC), the corporate law department recently established a digital committee to help focus efforts on the fast-rising area of FinTech, which is expected to revolutionize the way Canadian consumers and businesses conduct financial transactions.

Jillian Friedman, a digital banking and payments lawyer at NBC, says the objective of the committee is to “build and maintain digital expertise in legal affairs and make sure that legal affairs is up to speed and even ahead of the curve in terms of innovation and banking.” She says at the committee “there is less focus on legal analysis and more on the bigger picture and what is happening.”

Denis Brind’Amour, Senior Manager, Legal Affairs, Contracts, Acquisitions and Corporate Treasury at NBC, says his department looks to bring together legal expertise from the different areas and build a resource that can support the business lines going forward on digital matters. “The objective is to bring all these people together to share their experience and educate each other and increase our visibility with the business lines.”

He believes the legal department’s mandate is to be not only guardians or gatekeepers—a necessary role that he says will never go away—but also “strategic advisors to the business.”

The digital committee is doing its part. It has its own key performance indicators and is building a mobile app team. It has identified gaps in legal skills it needs to fill to carry out its mandate. It is also making presentations internally to clients and raising its profile.

While Brind’Amour is not sure that you can teach lawyers to think like entrepreneurs, he says lawyers can learn more about the businesses they advise, develop skills such as project management, and network better within their organizations to promote the service and value they bring to the table. “We can go a few steps further and be more of a strategic partner.”

Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations and former head of McCarthy Tétrault, who spoke at the CCCA’s spring conference, says in-house counsel have the skill set to make a mark on their companies and help drive them into the future. It’s a future that bodes well for Canadian businesses abroad, provided we continue to be a progressive country, he says. That’s because Canada is a country that is trusted and known for making things happen.

“You have a lot to bring to the strategy discussion,” he told the attendees. “You don’t want to be stuck in the legal box.”

“We are all in the business of making things happen. You need to bring solutions.”

That might very well mean tapping into your inner entrepreneurial spirit.

Jim Middlemiss is a writer based in London, Ontario. This article was first published in the Summer 2017 issue of CCCA Magazine.

A Strategic Partner

If you are looking for ways to build your entrepreneurial spirit and raise your profile, one great option is the Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel, delivered by the CCCA and the Rotman School of Management. One full day of the in-person program focuses on the management of the legal department, internally and externally. Both of these have components that need a future focus on how to do the work more efficiently and effectively.

Your “inner entrepreneur” voice will speak up to solve the following problems: “Do products such as legal tech start-up, Closing Folders, help in on a merger file?” “How is AI affecting contract management?” “Does using a service such as Simplex, Delegatus or Axiom help with staffing up?”

Like an MBA, the program also focuses on communication, organizational dynamics, human resources, executive decision-making, governance, leadership and teambuilding—important components of overall business success.

The informal discussions that spring from all this content are invaluable. Students share what has worked for them, what they are piloting, what new legal services they hope to see, and more. While industries and levels may vary, they all often have the same pain points.

All these learnings give in-house counsel the knowledge and skills needed to bring better, more innovative solutions to their organizations.

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