Lawyers and BD

There is an endless sea of lawyer jokes on the internet, but here is my favorite: “How many lawyer jokes are there, anyway? Only three. The rest are true stories.”  Lawyers may be an easy target for corny jokes, but they are also an unheralded ally to Business Developers.

I’ve worked with dozens of lawyers over my career, and most of them have been fantastic internal partners.  A business-minded lawyer can be a BD person’s most-trusted colleague: someone who can provide a valuable sounding board, spot red flags or risks that could kill a deal once it’s in flight, and do the yeoman’s work of being a ‘bad cop’ during a sensitive negotiation.

Business Development is an inherently optimistic role – it’s our job to look for hidden oases of value and to rally partners who will join us on our quest for growth opportunities.  It is therefore ironic that our “unheralded ally” can be someone who’s approach is by definition just the opposite: lawyers are paid to mitigate risk and find all the ways a deal can go wrong, and often, they are very good at doing just that.

I once worked on a partnership that took over 2 years to close.  It was an unremarkable deal – a partnership with a large media company to create a new advertising product – but it was important to me and I was committed to seeing it through.

To my credit, I refused to let time kill the deal but I made a fatal error from the get-go: I let the deal get over-lawyered.  For most of those 2 years I played defense to keep the deal from dying a death of 1000 redlines, but I should have been more aggressive in finding and working with allies in my general counsel’s office who could appreciate the need for balance between my “unicorn and rainbows” assessment and their tendency towards company-destroying Doomsday scenarios.

Without an appreciation for what is possible in a partnership, it was easy for the lawyers to only see what can go wrong; all the same, it was just as easy for me to get swept up in the upside without properly accounting for the my company’s potential downside.

It was a lesson well-learned and hard-earned: lawyers can be your most important partners but you need to appreciate the differences between the roles, and the mindsets of the people occupying them.

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