Why you need to be a business partner

Joshua Markus, general counsel of North and Central American operations for Rexam, shares his best practices for working across functions

Get to know the business

Joshua Markus recognizes the importance for in-house attorneys to listen, observe, read, and ask questions of their nonlawyer colleagues. Most importantly, he knows they can’t stop learning.

Markus is the general counsel of North and Central American operations for Rexam, a British multinational consumer packaging company and the world’s leading manufacturer of beverage cans.

For Markus, it’s a continual process to stay up to speed on such a fast-moving global company with sophisticated customers and suppliers. Rexam produces billions of beverage cans each year just in North and Central America.

“I’ve been with the company about eight years, and I learn something new every week,” he says. “I think that is transferrable; it doesn’t matter what the industry is.”

Get out of the office

When Markus started at Rexam, he had never heard of the company and certainly never imagined he’d end up working for a beverage can maker. He felt like a deer in headlights for the first several months, but he used his technical skills and developed an understanding of the business by getting out of his office and talking to people.

“One of the key things I remember doing when I first joined: get out,” he says. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait for somebody to call you, to come to your office or your cube. Meet all the functional people you think you’re going to interact with.”

It’s important to ask cross-functional colleagues not only what they are hoping you can do to support, but what challenges they are facing, he says. Inevitably, you’ll find points of contact or work streams that you can assist with, which the nonlawyer might not think to ask you for.

Markus recommends asking colleagues which issues are facing the business, what the strategy of the business is, what the operational risks are, and what the key performance indicators are.

“Legal is one of those functions that probably ends up touching a lot of them, and we really need to be very good at working cross-functionally and understanding what are the drivers of each of those typical functions,” he says.

Learn the numbers

In-house attorneys need to dive into their company’s financial information—something that’s especially important when they are negotiating a contract, Markus says. For example, when he looks at a commercial contract that has a potential pricing impact, he needs to know the likely cost to the organization.

“The best thing a general counsel can do is have a really strong relationship with the CFO or finance director,” he says. “There’s a lot of overlap in my experience on challenges and how you need to work, and things you need to think about.”

“The best thing a general counsel can do is have a really strong relationship with the CFO or finance director.”

Don’t be a voice of “no”

In the past, in-house counsel may have played the role of always saying “no” to proposals and ideas. But that doesn’t work well in today’s world, Markus says. Rather than simply saying no, in-house attorneys should offer alternative solutions when needed.

“Your colleagues are going to be turned around if every time they come to you, you just say ‘no, you can’t do that,’ or provide a solution that’s just wholly unpractical,” he says, adding that it’s still important to stand up and not be afraid to say “no” if something violates legal or ethical standards.

Prioritize

In-house legal teams typically have smaller resources than private practice firms. As such, a general counsel must learn to prioritize. Markus says that many days on the job remind him of being inside of an emergency room.

“Like in an ER, you have all these things coming at you,” he says. “You need to make pretty quick decisions on which matters need legal attention and which matters need attention by some other group. Then, once you’ve made that quick assessment, you need to decide which matters you can just answer quickly, which matters you need to spend more time with, and which things will require external counsel.”

Learn the language

Each company has its own identity and its own language, Markus says. That’s why it’s important not to assume that ideas or nomenclature he’s used elsewhere will be recognized at Rexam. “Realize your audience,” he stresses.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more time

While the business world seems to pick up speed with each passing year, in-house shouldn’t worry about saying, “I don’t know,” or, “I need more time.”

“It will always be better to take a little bit more time to have the best answer, rather than just a quick answer,” he says. “The quick answer is going to be the one that’s going to come back and bite you.”