Think Beyond the Role

Richard Konrath describes what it takes for an in-house legal department to add true value to an enterprise

“We are not merely appliers of the law who   give technical advice. We are trusted to act as   Counselors in the larger sense of the  word.”   —Richard Konrath
“We are not merely appliers of the law who give technical advice. We are trusted to act as Counselors in the larger sense of the word.” —Richard Konrath

Many in-house lawyers are satisfied with simply giving legal advice—but not Richard Konrath. The general counsel for North America at CNH Global believes legal teams should have critical, strategic involvement with their company. CNH Global has emerged as a global leader in the production of agricultural equipment. With 11,300 dealers and 40 manufacturing facilities in 170 countries, the company is approaching $21 billion in annual revenue. As he leads the North American legal team, Konrath looks for every opportunity to maximize value and impact his company’s business strategy. Lawyers, after all, should do more than simply advise on legal matters.

1. BE A STRATEGIC PLAYER

Konrath started his career with the US Securities and Exchange Commission before working as a securities and finance specialist and manager for Caterpillar Inc. from 1993 to 2009. Sixteen years with the heavy equipment maker left quite an impression. “I became very familiar with the industry and realized over time how a general counsel can really add value in a unique way,” he explains. Corporate lawyers who know their company’s philosophies, strengths, and weaknesses can respond in a more sensitive and effective way. Today, Konrath leads 17 legal professionals that he’s directed to counsel CNH executives on all aspects of the business. “We are not merely appliers of the law who give technical advice,” he explains. “We are trusted to act as counselors in the larger sense of the word.”

To help his team grow into its strategic role and take hold of its mandate to become a trusted adviser, Konrath has encouraged his associates to implant themselves into the business. One of his nine direct reports handles dealer distribution issues and is based in CNH’s New Holland, Pennsylvania, office. Although the employee is part of the legal team, he has become the go-to person that business managers seek out for distribution-related issues. “He’s seen as a core part of their team, even though he’s really part of legal,” says Konrath, adding that his colleague sits in on staff meetings and strategy sessions just like any other staff member. Furthermore, Konrath asks his legal team to attend off-site functions and regional meetings to build trust, to network, and to interact in all areas of the business from HR to purchasing.

2. PROMOTE HEALTHY COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION

“We err on the side of overcommunicating,” Konrath says. Communication gets emphasized because any contact with a business partner builds a relationship between the company and the legal team. To foster interaction and collaboration, Konrath has developed global practice teams, small groups that unite business and legal professionals around important areas such as data privacy or anticorruption. “Training is a critical way we connect with the company, and business partners really welcome this,” Konrath explains. He also produces Legal Alerts, short, pointed newsletters that address an issue relevant to CNH Global and help the legal team network with enterprise leaders.

3. ENCOURAGE DISSENTING OPINIONS

Konrath has found that when building a legal function, it’s best to keep things flat. That way, issues and problems can be dealt with quickly and directly. “Someone on the legal team should be able to talk to me or senior management without going through five layers of red tape,” he says.

Sixteen core leadership values guide his team, and one of the most important places an emphasis on honest feedback. Konrath has personally built nearly half of his department, and looks for employees who are willing to share a dissenting opinion. He tries to find people from different backgrounds with varied experience who will bring a fresh perspective to CNH’s legal team.  Those people should be brave enough to speak their minds. “I like to find out if prospective employees are willing to lead or if they always need to agree with me,” Konrath says. He asks applicants to describe a situation in which they’ve had to take a stand, convince a manager to consider a different approach, or ask a colleague to alter his direction. The importance lies not in the result, but in the approach.

4. CHANGE IS INEVITABLE, SO EMBRACE IT

A few years ago, Konrath saw the value in developing a system to analyze and track affirmative recoveries. Traditionally, an in-house legal team responds when problems or opportunities arise. Conversely, Konrath is setting team goals and seeking recoveries in areas like international trade, insurance, and supplier disputes. “The industry is changing, and we have to take a more proactive approach,” he says. “We want to find and bring recoveries to the company instead of always being reactive.”

This is one of many ways that the legal profession is changing. Konrath’s team is setting goals, tracking its progress, and reporting back to senior management. In doing so, they’re proving they can do more than simply mitigate risk and provide advice. It is also another way in which legal proves its value to the company and its stakeholders.

5. THINK BEYOND THE ROLE

In-house legal teams must be part of the overall strategy. Corporate lawyers combine rigorous legal training with intimate industry knowledge to add value out of the legal department. As they do, they have the chance to go from “calling balls and strikes to helping the team win the game,” Konrath says.

Konrath believes than an attorney with in-house aspirations should gain additional experience at a law firm or agency, working to develop core skills in the right context while demonstrating the ability to become a true partner that can help with strategy. As the industry continues to change, Konrath points to compliance expertise as another area of opportunity as corporations move more into this emerging and necessary world. Younger lawyers who can focus their expertise and develop an attractive skill set will become an integral player and trusted partner on any corporate team.