“The culture of overwork is the biggest problem of the legal profession” — Loio’s interview with Lisa Lang

This interview is part of Loio’s series of interviews with legal enthusiasts about the ins and outs of the legal industry.

The following is the interview with Lisa Lang, the General Counsel for Kentucky State University, the creator of the LinkedIn series WHY DO THIS, NOT THAT™ and contributor to the anthology #Networked: How 20 Women Lawyers Overcame the Confines of COVID-19 Social Distancing to Create Connections, Cultivate Community, & Build Businesses in the Midst of a Global Pandemic. Lisa Lang is a mentor committed to paying it forward.

Let’s dive in!

— Thank you for doing the interview, Lisa! Could you tell me about your professional and personal journey to where you are now? Where did you start? How did you get where you are now?

I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I was not always sure that I had what it took to be a lawyer. It was because of that uncertainty that my professional legal journey has been somewhat untraditional. I went to college to be a teacher, but after graduation, I ended up spending nine years as a paralegal first in the military and then private practice.

It was after spending nine years as a paralegal that I felt that I was ready to go to law school and become a lawyer.

After graduating from law school and passing the bar exam, I started in private practice at a mid-size law firm. After a few years there, I moved to state government and worked mainly for agencies related to education. It was because of that experience, I eventually moved to my present role as a General Counsel for a public university. It has been the role I have found to be the most rewarding.

— Thank you! That’s quite a journey! What drives you professionally?

— I really think that you have to have a passion for the work that you do. I love to help solve problems that matter.

The thing that gets me coming back every day is when I get to serve an employer or a business that has a mission that makes the world a better place. I feel like every single job I’ve ever had has had some aspect to it.

— What are the biggest blessings and curses of being a legal professional? How would you recommend dealing with challenges? 

— I’ll talk about the challenges. 

The one thing that I’ve been doing a lot of writing on is the culture of overwork. That is the biggest problem that the legal profession has. 

I really think that it is something that we need to work on. When I was at that law firm, it was driven by the billable hour. It just felt like you were constantly working and that you were neglecting your own health and family. I am a true believer that until you care for yourself, you’re never going to do the best job that you can do for your clients. You need to really focus on self-help. Not everything has to be done today. Not everything has to be done tomorrow. 

What I learned in the military is about being mission-oriented. With lawyers, what I would really like to see us do is to focus on getting the work done and not how many hours to bill to get it done and how many hours our butts are actually in a seat. 

— What are your personal tips when it comes to managing your mental health?

— As an in-house counsel, I am asked to do projects and I’m given deadlines. I think it’s really important to ask people when this is due and to find out whether it is a hard or a soft deadline. Because it’s impossible to prioritize otherwise. All you have to say is “Listen, I want to help you and support you in what it is you’re trying to do, but understand that I’m helping and assisting a lot of other people, too. So, I need to have a real understanding about what kind of deadline you’re talking about so that I can prioritize the work.” When you do that, it gives you the ability to breathe and go home at night and not check your emails and not to worry. 

The other thing that I have also been a big proponent of is if there is something that I complete and it’s ready for the next person, there is no reason for me to send it on a Friday before a holiday. It’s not a hot potato. I don’t want to pass it off to somebody else. Because when you pass that off to somebody else — especially, somebody who is a subordinate — they’re going to feel a pressure to get it done. And there’s no need to do that. So you just hold it until it’s time. Then you send it and give clear expectations about when it needs to get done. So, it’s boundary-setting.

— On your LinkedIn page, you write a lot about personal branding as a necessity for a legal professional. Why is it important? What would you advise to avoid doing to build the brand you need? 

— I think that for lawyers — people who work in private practice and who own their own businesses — personal branding is something that they pay attention to. The reason I talk a lot about branding — and I talk about it in the context of in-house lawyers — it’s because I think there are not a lot of in-house lawyers that think about it. What I believe is really important is that you should not wrap up so completely your brand in the brand of your employers. You’ve got to be able to exist separate and apart from your employer. 

Part of that brand building is getting out there and understanding who you are, what you do, and how you do what you do. 

That’s important because you work for a business and you never know … something may happen to the business. It may no longer be there. And if you’ve completely wrapped up all of your personal branding with that employer, where does that leave you? It also helps lay the foundation and gives you connections for the next step in your career. I think branding is important in that regard. 

What tips would I have is to not ignore it. I think there are too many in-house counselors who just don’t even think about it. For me, it’s been a huge learning curve because there are not a lot of people out there talking about what an in-house counsel should do when they’re working on branding. What I’ve come to realize is you don’t have to be an expert in all things. In my posts, I try to make what I talk about related, I’m trying to occupy a very specific space. I can bring my posts in and tie them together. 

— Thank you! Just wanted to clarify: what did you mean by saying “part of that brand building is getting out there”?

— I think that’s a little bit harder with in-house counsel. And that’s what LinkedIn has done for me. Posting is a way that I have to communicate to others in my field and others related to my field about who I am, what I do, and how I do it. By doing that, other opportunities have opened up. I have writing opportunities now, I do podcasts and I am also starting to speak at events. 

If it weren’t for LinkedIn, I wouldn’t have even known how to get started. Especially, being an in-house lawyer. I’m a university lawyer and the only association I know of is the National Association for College and University Attorneys. That’s a really-really small area. But what LinkedIn has given me is the ability to reach a lot of other lawyers and do something outside of that very little niche of education. 

— Would you agree that distraction is a big issue of the legal profession that causes additional stress and pressure? How would you recommend dealing with it? 

— Well, you need to turn your phone off and upside down 🙂 Also, I have a whiteboard in my office. I am a big proponent of mono-tasking. To me, you can multitask so far as you’re always going to have multiple projects going on at once. But you’re not focused on each one of those tasks at once. 

With the whiteboard, what I try to do is to put down everything that I’ve got going. Then I put down what stage I’m at. When it’s a stage when I’m waiting or I’m not needed to do something, or it’s waiting on somebody else, I try to focus on the one task at hand. 

— Thank you! Being a lawyer, how many contracts have you reviewed throughout your career? 

— I could not even tell you 🙂 More than a thousand! 

In larger institutions, they have a whole department that does it. In our institution,  I’m the one that reviews contracts because I’m the one who enjoys them the most. Sometimes no one understands about all of the systems and processes that the university is utilizing — and it’s been amazing to me how much I’ve better understood how things operate because I’m reading all these agreements and I get to see how they all fit together. 

— What are the biggest challenges when it comes to contract drafting and reviewing? Do you think that contracting is the area that can benefit from the use of legaltech? 

— I am sure that there are other areas that can utilize legal technology. 

But I see contracting as the single biggest area where I see legaltech as useful and helpful. 

At least, for right now. I’m putting a lot of my efforts and energy into learning and understanding this area because I do really think that it does help with that process. 

In terms of what some of the most difficult parts of the contract review process are, I think that it is very easy to fly through contracts and not be as careful and as diligent as you should be in the contract review. Especially, when you’re working with vendors who have been standardizing their forms. 

I like legal tech in terms of when you can scan it and your software can help you identify certain provisions, e.g. your terms and conditions, the things that appear all the time in contracts. There are certain things that you know as a lawyer you need to hone in on. I think that legal technology really helps you in that space. But what I think people lose sight of is that you need to read a contract in its totality. Because that contract is the roadmap for a relationship in terms of how a service is provided or how you use a software. 

I think sometimes people have a tendency to get too focused on the terms and conditions and don’t read the contract in its totality. I do try to read a contract in its totality to understand what roadmap is being formulated in that agreement. 

According to Sterling Miller, you need to read a contract multiple times. I believe that every time you read it, you should be reading it for different reasons. You may go in it and look at it with your standard terms and conditions. There are certain things that I know I should check first — for instance, the indemnification clause in the confidentiality clause. As a public agency, I hone right into those two provisions because most of the time I can not agree on behalf of my client to abide by the confidentiality permission. We’ve got open records rules and sunshine rules that say that we can’t agree to keep a lot confidential. Also, as a state agency, I can’t agree to indemnify another party. So, I do go through a contract and I look for those types of terms and conditions because of the type of agency we are. 

But I also think that you need to go through the contract and make sure that there are some other things in it that help you to understand what service is being provided, what your responsibility is, what the responsibility of the other party is, what the deliverables are, what the timing of payment is, the scope of work, etc. Those are all things that I would focus on in a subsequent review because those are the important things to business people. They want to know who’s going to do what and what the consequences if one of those parties doesn’t do those things are. 

Then there’s the proofreading phase — looking for common mistakes. The contracting expert Laura Frederick did a post on it: whereas lawyers will spell out a number and then will put the number in parentheses. A lot of times when you don’t do a good job of editing or proofreading, you may realize that the written out number and the numerals are different. Other things I also like doing when proofreading is to make sure that every block is checked. I need to make sure that there are no ambiguities. If it’s irrelevant to the contract, it’s important to put “not applicable” instead of just like leaving it blank. 

It’s all about proofreading, completeness, and making sure all of the parties’ names are in there, that you didn’t inadvertently leave the name of a party that was in the template of the contract that you used the last time, etc. 

— Recently you’ve launched the WHY THIS, NOT THAT™️ initiative. How did you come up with it? Tell us a bit about it. 

The reason I started it was because when I was in private practice, I had the ability to go down the hall and talk to other associates about how I was doing something. When I went in-house and before I really started engaging on LinkedIn, it was difficult. I was in-house by myself and I did not have anybody else to call upon. A lot of what I learned was by trial and error. 

I did WHY THIS, NOT THAT™️ because I was trying to help those people who were new to being in-house to avoid making the mistakes that I had made. A lot of times those posts that I do are not because I’m telling other people how to do it right. It’s me telling people “I’ve done this wrong and you may want to think about doing it differently.” 

— Thank you! Is this initiative part of Contract Nerds?

— It started before that. Nada Alnajafi asked me if I would be willing to do a weekly series on contracts. But it started out as a DO THIS, NOT THAT as an in-house counsel edition. Now I do that one for Contract Nerds. 

I haven’t done it as much lately, but I do plan on doing more WHY THIS, NOT THAT™️. On April 15, I’m launching a website called WHY THIS, NOT THAT™️. It’ll be offering resources for in-house counsel. I also have a blog and I’m planning to build a lot of my blog posts around the whole WHY THIS, NOT THAT™️ concept. 

— What are the biggest changes happening in the legal industry today? Do you support these changes? What else should change?

— I do think that because of the pandemic we are changing the way we see our work. I’m very much in support of that. As for the remote work, I think we do need to re-imagine how we are structuring work. Something that has worked really well in my office is — and we’ve agreed to continue this past the pandemic — focusing on getting the work done while making sure that your home and family life is not suffering. 

I think that it is possible for us to have the work done remotely. Different people have different styles of work. I think that it’s important for everybody from your team to sit down together and talk about how everyone best works, and what we need to do to accomplish a mission. It’s necessary to find the best work strategies that make it possible for everybody to have their best life possible while still getting the work done.

— How do you envision the lawyer of the 21st century? What skills should they have? 

— I think legal technology is going to play a significant part. I think that legal operations are important. I believe we need to get better. We need to be more effective and to do things more efficiently. The only way we are going to do that is to innovate. 

Innovation is not just about technology, but about learning to do more with less. Sometimes that’s about better utilizing what you already have. 

I also think that the 21st-century lawyer really needs to start focusing a lot more on leadership skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence. We have to learn to bring the human side to what we do. Another thing we can benefit from is the “collaboration over competition” mindset. I believe we will be better as lawyers if we do that.

— If you could have lunch with any prominent legal industry figure, who would that be? Why? 

— I’d have lunch with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Their experiences are very interesting. I think that there’s a lot that I could learn from both of them in what it is they’ve done and how it is that they have worked to overcome some barriers while being women in the law. 

– My last question is what interview question would you like to be asked and how would you answer it? 

Well, you’re a really good interviewer 🙂  I think you have covered all my passion points. You clearly read my posts 🙂  

I do 🙂 I enjoy them very much. 

Thank you very much, Lisa Lang!

The interview was conducted by Jane Kuhuk, PR Manager at Loio.

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