ASK: 8 tips for successfully working with your legal team

For anyone who has developed community programs as part of a medium to large corporation, there are two words that can send shivers down their spine: Legal Department. In today’s business culture, the internal legal department has taken on a powerful role, and many marketing and community building employees find themselves at odds with legal. Today’s society doesn’t help much either, with so many people being scared to death of getting sued or causing their company to get sued.

Too often we see projects that bend and give into the demands of the legal department, watering down what could have otherwise been a great project between company and community. Certainly there are times when such bending is warranted and smart, but far more often project leaders simply don’t push hard enough for what they need from their project.

Think about the purpose of an internal legal department – their job is to reduce risk to zero. Their work experience, their degree, and their industry’s culture is one that is primarily focused on removing risk. This desire to remove risk leads to complex Terms of Service, disclaimers, and Non-Disclosure Agreements.

On the flip side, the business and marketing team has a different purpose: to reduce risk to the lowest possible level, while increasing reward to the highest possible level, finding a balance between the two that is comfortable for the corporation.

The conflict between the legal department and the business teams primarily stems from this subtle, yet extremely key difference. In recent memory, the legal department has morphed from an internal service provider, supporting the decisions of the business team, into a group that tends to make more decisions than they influence. When we’re making decisions about the future of the business based on the desire to reduce risk to zero, it’s no wonder we find ourselves with diminishing profits, upset customers, and uninteresting products!

With risky, fear-inducing concepts such as engaging communities and community members, how do avoid being shot down by the legal department? Here are 8 tips for partnering with, rather than working around your company’s legal department.

Respect realities
Perhaps the most important starting point when working with a legal department is to understand that they are actually trying to help you and protect the business. Sure, the current decision making power legal teams find themselves with is a bit out a balance, but there are real issues you need to be aware of. They get paid to think of and worry about things that may never cross your mind. The legal team exists to help you, so don’t get to caught up in trying to avoid working with them or working around them.

Create partnerships rather than friction
Like any other group in your company, the best way to get past the legal difficulties your yet-to-be-launched community project might face is to connect to the legal team and ask them to participate. Ask them to step out of their role as purveyors of yes/no answers (mostly “no”) and have them participate as a team member. This helps them to fully understand the business goals, which helps them find solutions rather than simply telling you to stop.

The core question is not “Should we involved them?” Rather, the question is “When is the right time to involve them?” Each group of lawyers will vary in the best time and way to include them. Some help significantly by being included from the first day, others when there’s a solid gameplan. Either way, don’t wait too long.

Listen to the issue, not the answer
Legal may tell say, for example, “We can’t use Twitter because we’re required to track any and all communications by employees due to regulatory statutes”. This doesn’t mean the Twitter project must stop; it just means you have to look for a way to document the communication. While the legal department may speak in absolutes, it’s your job to see through those absolutes and find a solution that works for all parties. One helpful tip is to ask specific questions in a way that leads to further discussion.

Face the fears head on
Risk is based on a combination of logic and fear. Healthy risk assessment balances both. Unfortunately, in today’s business environment too much risk assessment takes place with a minimum amount of logic and a maximum amount of fear. New communication channels open every day, countless stories of product leaks come across the news wires, and feel overwhelmed by the lack of controls on their corporate communication. In this environment, the legal department is struggling to manage their own fears as well as the fears of the rest of the organization. Understand this, and help them manage them. Acknowledge that concerns of negative user posting on a blog or forum, for instance, are legitimate. Be ready to politely work through these concerns and share a gameplan for how to deal with these issues.

Know your subject matter
If you plan on having a debate with the legal team, make sure you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. As Mike Rowland once pointed out, you should know some of your key legal cases related to social media, such as:

  • Anthony DeMeo vs. Tucker Max (Which stated that community owners aren’t liable for their user’s postings)
  • Viacom vs. Google/YouTube (Which requires YouTube to turn over user data to Viacom in order to help Viacom prosecute a copyright infringement case)
  • Current status of case law around whether pre-moderating user submissions constitutes an increase in liability concerns

Simply understanding some relevant legal issues will not only gain you some respect from the legal team, it will help you have more interesting, helpful, productive discussions.

Ask specific questions
Stay away from questions like “Can I post content online?” which don’t provide enough context to even allow for a “yes” answer. Remember, a lawyer’s job is to reduce risk to zero, so if there is any risk at all, there’s a good chance they’ll say no out of habit. Instead, focus on the specific area you believe there is concern around. Ask questions like “When we post content on our blog, should we be concerned about documenting responses?”

Build processes, don’t ask for answers
Even better than asking specific questions, ask the legal team to help you identify larger issues and concepts on your own. Rather than having to come to them with every iteration of a problem, address the bigger issue together, learning what the core concerns are and how to avoid them generally. This will save both teams countless hours of back and forth.

Trust yourself and your own knowledge
Countless marketing professionals have asked the legal team questions like: “Is this safe for me to do?” When the answer is “no,” they simply accept the answer and move on to finding another solution. Perhaps this is from lack of interest, but more likely it’s from lack of confidence. Most people consider “the law” in the same league as Tax Code: confusing, scary, and understood only by professionals. Trust yourself enough to believe that while you may not understand the full context of why certain legal issues work a certain way, you can ask a lawyer for details. Push back on the legal team, ask questions, and issue challenges. You’ll be surprised how often your “outsider approach” will cause a reframing of the problem at hand. There is a reason why the term “think outside of the box” exists, and it doesn’t apply only to the marketing team.

Remember that the legal team, no matter the industry, is a service provider who is supposed to enable and protect the business. Ask your legal team colleagues for help making your business and projects better, but don’t allow them to make your business decisions for you.

(This content was originally posted at the Online Community Research Network and reposted here with permission)