Alan Barnes Brings the People into the Business

Alan Barnes of Sutherland Global Services knows that the key to being a better attorney is knowing your clients’ business—and the people who run it

If you meet Alan Barnes, he will ask you about yourself. Barnes is the vice president and corporate counsel at Sutherland Global Services, a leading digital transformation company, and he believes that building relationships comes before building the business. Whether you are joining his team or just sitting down to negotiate a contract or hash out a legal strategy, he goes out of his way to establish a personal connection.

“I try to find something that we both can relate to. When you are going to be across the table from somebody, you try to find that common thread,” Barnes says. To him, this is the key to being a successful lawyer—make people comfortable and take an interest in them. “When you connect on a personal level, we are both disarmed to some degree. It rapidly builds some connective tissue, and you will begin working together more quickly,” he explains.

Barnes learned from a young age how to connect with people from all sorts of backgrounds. He grew up in a military family, and when he was in high school, his father was stationed in the Philippines. To this day, he attributes his success to what he learned during his time there. “There’s no substitute for international travel. I really think that’s what has made me a better lawyer,” he explains. “I had to learn how to make friends pretty quickly. When you get thrust into that kind of situation, you bond a lot quicker, and the bonds are deeper.”

Alan Barnes, VP and Corporate Counsel, Sutherland Global Services Photo by Chris Lonsberry

Barnes went on to major in journalism at the University of Georgia and was lucky enough to get professional experience at IBM and Equifax at a time when the prominence of these companies and the technology they helped develop were only just being discovered—even by the people on the inside.

“At that time, Equifax did not realize that they were a tech company,” Barnes remarks. In the early 1990s, at the dawn of the digital revolution, Barnes found himself in charge of automating the legal department at Equifax. “When I was put in charge of our automation project, I made a hugely erroneous assumption: that all our attorneys knew how to type,” he says, chuckling.

He noticed that lawyers were hesitant about technology; in those days, most didn’t know how to type, much less understand the difference between an operating system and a word processing software package. Barnes’s willingness to embrace tech opened up doors to new experiences he might never have gotten otherwise.

In truth, his superiors at the time could not have possibly known that they were on the verge of a technological boom that would keep legal linked to tech for the foreseeable future. Barnes’s experiences at IBM and Equifax continue to inform his attitude toward his current role as vice president and corporate counsel at Sutherland Global Services, a digitally focused business process transformation company.

Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find a lawyer who isn’t tech inclined. But as a leader in the legal department of a large digital support company, Barnes’s new challenge lies in helping his team use tech to their advantage to forge relationships and help clients. He encourages his team to get on the phone and learn the ins and outs of the products they are selling.

“Take the time, effort, and energy to learn about what they are selling,” Barnes advises. “What are they hoping to achieve? Pick up the phone and talk to an internal client. Ask them what challenges they’re facing. You will be surprised at how willing they are to discuss their latest challenges and, in turn, ask your advice on helping them.”

“If you know the business, you can figure out ways to move forward while trying to mitigate risk. It makes clients more comfortable. It’s not legal decisions versus business decisions; they are all business decisions.”

That philosophy lies at the heart of Barnes’s advice to the junior lawyers on his team: the better they understand the company, the more integrated they can be in the business process. “For many companies, legal is just a box you need to check—‘the deal prevention group.’ I try to avoid that mentality as much as possible,” Barnes explains. “If you know the business, you can figure out ways to move forward while trying to mitigate risk. It makes clients more comfortable. It’s not legal decisions versus business decisions; they are all business decisions.”

Mentoring younger lawyers and giving them the guidance he was lucky enough to receive early in his career is what Barnes counts as the most satisfying part of his job. He believes in the “baptism by fire” approach to get new attorneys out of their comfort zone. “The sooner you feel uncomfortable, the more comfortable you will be in the long run,” Barnes affirms. “Let them make mistakes but let them know you are there for them.”

Offering instructions to younger lawyers and getting to know them as people also contributes to the incredible morale that Sutherland legal has among their team. Though they have team members located in all parts of the world, Barnes and the rest of his department feel like a united entity.

“I have never worked in a legal department that has as much camaraderie as we do at Sutherland legal,” he says. Barnes credits his boss, Sumitha Yogesh, for fostering this sense of genuine community and does his best to further that sense of companionship by sharing his experience and establishing connection. If you work with Alan Barnes, he’ll be sure to work with you.