For our next women’s history month feature, we’re excited to spotlight the amazing Lisa Lang, General Counsel of Kentucky State University.
Lisa and I have only met virtually, but we immediately hit it off with our shared passion to support other women and diversity and shared “tell it how it is” personalities (I think the professional term is “authenticity”). Every conversation we have is filled with laughter and sidetracked to chat about our personal lives. Lisa is a lawyer, mother, grandmother, vet, former paralegal, and so much more. Oh, and Lisa is quite the LinkedIn influencer – I recommend you follow her!
Per usual, I can count on Lisa to generously share the lessons she has learned over her long career and also tips on building trust – one of the most important things you need to build and maintain for a successful career regardless of your role. Building trust is especially important for in-house attorneys who often don’t have the leverage of “I bring in revenue” that causes others to overlook suboptimal behavior.
Meet Lisa Lang
What do I love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I have done many things over the course of my 30-year legal career. I have been a paralegal in the military and a paralegal in a mid-size law firm; I have been a litigator for a law firm and a litigator for a government agency; and, for the last 10 years, I have been an in-house lawyer for various public agencies. Of all these roles, I have to admit the role I have loved the most has been my role as in-house lawyer for a public university.
As an in-house lawyer, I have enjoyed finding ways to resolve disputes that do not involve litigation. I have found that litigation is rarely the answer when it comes to solving problems. The benefits of litigation (financial gain) rarely outweigh the costs of litigation (relationships, reputation, and financial expense). I have found that it is in the organization’s best interest to resolve disputes quickly and with as little cost as possible. I have found that it is important to determine the root cause of disputes so that you can find mutually beneficial ways for both parties to resolve disputes before litigation occurs.
What lessons have I learned from being an in-house counsel?
While I have heard many lawyers lament that law school did little to prepare them for their roles in civil law as litigators or in criminal law as prosecutors and defenders, I would say law school did even less to prepare me for my role in business as an in-house counsel.
The role of in-house counsel is unlike any other legal role. Why? To be a good in-house counsel, you have to unlearn a great deal of what you learned as an outside counsel and as a litigator. When you land a job as an in-house counsel, you quickly understand that it is not your legal acumen that is the key to success. You learn that the key to success comes from embracing a completely different mindset:
1. You need to learn to solve problems and not to win arguments.
2. You need to learn to be a business person first and a lawyer second.
3. You need to learn to embrace calculated risk and to not be preoccupied with liability.
4. You need to learn that sometimes public reputation and perception will trump potential liability.
5. You need to find your place on a leadership team made up of professionals from different career fields.
6. You need to understand your entity’s organizational structure from the ground up.
7. You need to do less talking and more listening.
8. You need to accept that trust and respect is not freely given. It is earned.
9. You need to understand there are people who will consider you a cost of doing business (hopefully a necessary one).
10. You need to understand that your control is limited and sometimes bad things happen despite your best efforts to prevent them.
How Do You Build Trust?
Establishing trust can be challenging. Establishing trust is a process, and it does not happen overnight. It can be especially challenging for an in-house counsel when that in-house counsel does not interact with other employees in the organization on a day-to-day basis.
If you want to establish trust, I would recommended the following in an article I wrote for Above the Law:
1. Build trust through the language you use. Be intentional about what you say and how you say it.
You should show that you are grateful.
You need to make sure you are not simply saying the words. You need to mean what you say, and you need to give specific reasons for why you are grateful. Gratitude goes a long way when you let your team members know of your gratitude immediately following the completion of a challenging project. Let each member of the team know precisely what you appreciated about their individual contribution. You need to let them know how it ensured the success of the project.
You should show that you are open to ideas other than your own.
You need to make sure that you are actively soliciting ideas from all team members regardless of the position that person may hold in the organization. When proposing solutions to problems, you should ask other employees for their perspectives regarding the problem as well as possible solutions. By doing that, you are not only helping your team’s individuals feel like part of the solution, your organization is more likely to arrive at the best solution possible.
You should show that you are listening by asking thoughtful questions.
The benefits of asking thoughtful questions are many. Not only will you learn a great deal about people and processes, it will also help you bond with the person with whom you are speaking. Ask your questions as part of a conversation and resist the urge to interrogate. Watch the sequence and tone of your questions and favor the open-ended question over “closed” questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.”
2. Build trust by showing vulnerability — let your team know you know you are not perfect and that you are willing to ask for help.
You are a leader. You are not a superhuman. Your greatest accomplishments will never be those things that you did on your own. Your greatest accomplishments will be those things that you accomplished when you brought a team together and shared the burden together.
3. Build trust by showing trust.
Trust is a two-way street. You often have to trust your team before your team will trust you. How can you show trust? You can show trust by resisting the urge to micromanage and by giving your teammates the power and the authority to manage projects on their own. You can assign new and additional responsibilities. Think about including all your team members when strategy is discussed and decisions are made.
Do what you can to earn that trust and then guard it above all else!
Lisa K. Lang currently serves as the General Counsel for Kentucky State University, a role she has had for over four years. Lisa first began her career as a lawyer working as an associate attorney specializing in insurance defense for a law firm in Louisville, Kentucky. She left that firm in 2008 to work for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. She first worked in the Office of the Attorney General as an Assistant Attorney General and then for the Kentucky Department of Education in a variety of in-house counsel roles until taking her current position at Kentucky State University.
We’re excited to highlight some of the amazing women at Lexion and in the legal industry in our Women’s History Month blog series. Follow along as we highlight:
- Women In Legal, a primer on Women's History Month and why it matters
- Shima Salimi, Staff Engineer at Lexion
- Jane Fronczak, Senior Customer Success Manager at Lexion
- Lisa Lang, General Counsel at Kentucky State University
- Krysta Johnson, Senior Legal and Business Operations Manager at Lexion