Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc. He is also President Elect of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.
Humility – the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc. Dictionary.com
How can an in-house counsel balance this most important of virtues with her efforts to build confidence in her client that she is trustworthy, her advice competent and her leadership and guidance effective? Doesn’t an effective lawyer have to demonstrate assertiveness (even aggressiveness), boldness, strength and confidence to meet the expectations of her client?
The answer is yes – she must exhibit these traits, but I suggest it must be done from a perspective of humility. A true humble nature residing in the heart of the lawyer will do much more to build a strong relationship with her clients and help her serve the business more effectively. To be clear, I do not mean to confuse being humble with being hesitant, reluctant or afraid or in any way lacking in confidence.
There is a sure air of confidence and a certain je ne sais quoi surrounding people who are highly effective at what they do, yet are self-effacing. Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great,” a new management book about 11 of the most successful companies in the United States, says, “There is a direct relationship between the absence of celebrity and the presence of good to great results.” There are many reasons for this according to Collins, but I want to focus in this short space on why humility is a necessary element of success.
As you contemplate the level of humility you reflect onto others, think about how you view this trait in your peers and colleagues. Are you motivated by clients or company leaders who are inconsiderate, egotistical, bombastic, grandiose? Do you champion their cause, give them the benefit of the doubt when challenged, support their initiatives wholeheartedly and honestly? Or, do you find yourself aligning with people within your organization who are kind, gracious, self-effacing, understated, all the while being highly effective? I believe the answer is obvious, at least for me.
The in-house lawyer has the challenge of performing under the client’s perception of what a lawyer should be (often not a flattering image of the lawyer) and maintaining her professionalism and integrity. I believe that this can be done by maintaining a servant perspective, reflecting modesty and respect for others and their opinions, but standing strong (respectfully) on issues for which there is no compromise. None of us have all the answers to every clients every question and we shouldn’t act like we do.
To be effective a good lawyer must be assertive, confident, bold, decisive, and at times strong-willed, aggressive, forceful and sometimes obtrusive. In doing so she must not give up her kindness, modesty, politeness, professionalism, integrity, respect for others, acknowledgement of authority and understanding that she is not perfect, in a word – humility. This is a tough balancing act for the in-house counsel. I encourage you to think and reflect about why humility might be a good thing for you to consider as you approach your clients.