Working with the Legal Department

This post originally appeared on on April 27, 2010.

If there’s one word that inspires fear in the hearts of executives everywhere, its the word ‘lawsuit.’ If a company is in business long enough, it will almost undoubtedly end up either suing or being sued by another company or individual. It is a nearly unavoidable fact of our modern business culture that negotiations will break down and we’ll then break out the lawyers.

When lawsuits happen, especially when the dispute is over process or system whose requirements are managed by a project team, its very likely that members of the project team will be called upon to answer questions about the dispute.

The first project I was ever on ended up one step away from a lawsuit; it wasn’t the best way to begin a career, I can tell you that. Since that time, my career as a BA has provided me the opportunity to support different companies as they battle in the courts. While my experience in this area has not been extensive, it has been memorable and instructional. What follows is not legal advice by any means, but is the experience gained by this BA.

Remember, Legal disputes are nothing to take lightly. Matters of this type rarely go away on their own. 

Know What to Keep and What to Toss

My first piece of advice is to know your company’s data retention policy and keep to that policy. This is something that many BAs I’ve known find difficult to do, especially if your company’s policy considers documentation to have a very short shelf life. Our requirements documents often become the inputs to procedure manuals, training material and support documentation. For projects that span multiple years, it can be difficult to understand what must be kept and what is no longer necessary.

Many retention policies specify different classifications of documents. Financial records, records pertaining to legal matters, intellectual property information or long-term strategic documents are often held for much greater durations than daily operational communications.

Some companies state that all documents can or must be kept at least a certain number of days while others limit what can be kept based on what will fit in a cubicle. Policies for electronic document storage and email inboxes are often controlled by the document’s age or by a size limit on a specific directory.

One rule that you can count on is that once a company has been notified that it is or soon will be under threat of legal action, any documents related to that complaint must be retained. Disposing of any document, physical or electronic, after notification of legal action is received is a nearly sure-fire way to get yourself and your company in a lot of legal trouble.

Its Not Just Documents and eMail

In a time not so far removed from today, companies facing legal action only had to worry about retaining documents, emails and maybe a database or two. Times have changed. Does your company participate in social networking? Do you have any vendors who hold information for you in their data centers? What about an offsite backup site? Do you allow txt messages on company phones? Do you have a company wiki?

If you answered 'yes’ to any of those questions, then your workload for managing data retention just got more difficult. The more physical and electronic locations which house your data, the more work it is to monitor what data lives where and to be ready to retrieve the correct data in a timely manner.

Many vendors have policies that allow you to gain access to all of your data whenever you want it, but it is worth asking about access when working to negotiate a contract. 

Maintain Relationships

Your legal department, or your retained legal counsel, are your best friends during legal proceedings, but that isn’t the only time you should acknowledge their existence. Ignore your counsel at your own peril.

The best way to win a legal proceeding is to never find yourself in one. If there are questions about the legality or perceived fairness of a policy, process or system, legal counsel can provide you with opinions to help guide your policy or implementation decisions. When it comes to dealing with the courts, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of medicine.

Constant and regular communication with the legal team during a legal matter is also crucial. You never want to have your lawyer surprised in the court room or when meeting with the opposing counsel. Attorney client privilege exists for a reason, so that you can work for the best defense without fear that private conversations can be used against you or your company.

Sometimes the requests of counsel can seem onerous, especially if they’re asking for information that is either used rarely or is very old. We are all busy doing our regular tasks, so when legal asks for something that might add significantly to our workload, our natural tendency would be to push back or to deny having access to the data at all. It is our job to help legal understand the difficulties in obtaining the information and then coming to an understanding as to whether or not it is really pertinent to the case at hand. There will be times where the effort required may be greater than what it would cost simply to settle the case.

So those are my suggestions for being a good partner with the legal department. What about you? What have your experiences taught you about working well with lawyers?