In this installment of The In-House Advisor, we interview Keith Wexelblatt, Associate General Counsel at Reebok International Ltd. After being in private practice for 5 years, Keith joined Reebok as in-house counsel in 1998. In his present role, Keith manages the litigation and employment work for Reebok and various of its affiliates. In addition, he oversees all the legal work for, and leads the HR department of, Montreal based Reebok-CCM Hockey.
The In-House Advisor (IHA): The role of in-house counsel has changed a lot since you first went in-house. How do you see that role changing going forward and how can today’s in-house counsel prepare for those changes?
Keith Wexelblatt (KW): In-house practice has changed dramatically in my 16 years while at Reebok. Attorneys must now manage issues with less internal resources and follow directives to utilize outside firms to a lesser degree as cost concerns play an even bigger role in the decision-making process. You must assume even greater risks, but still maintain an ability to distinguish between knowledgeable risk-taking actions and recklessness. Also, the amount of change in technology, social media and legislation insures rapid and constant change, which places extra burdens on keeping abreast of these developments.
IHA: While in-house counsel routinely save their companies money, legal departments generally are viewed as cost centers that add nothing to the bottom line. How can in-house counsel get across to the business people the value that in-house lawyers add to the company?
KW: In-house attorneys can get this point across to the business by actually adding value. This can be done through creating strong business partnerships, delivering positive results in offensive litigation matters, presenting realistic exposure scenarios along with budgeted costs in litigation defense, and taking actions that achieve demonstrable cost savings to the business. Also, the sharing of misfortune suffered by others’ actions, and the proactive steps taken by your department on the company’s behalf, should highlight the value added.
IHA: What should in-house attorneys not say or do to try to show their value?
KW: An over-the-top presentation of cost metrics, budgets and inflated results often do not strengthen your case, especially when it is often hard to quantify the savings or value added. Be truthful and realistic. When they start coming to you voluntarily for advice and appreciate your input, rather than coming to you because you or someone else has mandated that they come to you and check off the compliance box, then you know you have succeeded on this goal.
IHA: What is the best advice you have received that has helped you succeed as an in-house attorney?
KW: Don’t act as a technical lawyer or be perceived as the internal police. Be an advisor, advocate, and trusted business partner aligned with meeting the business goals.