Is the legal department derailing your launch?

There are many reasons that as a product manager you interact with the legal department:

  • When introducing a new product or package, you need the customer facing contract to reflect and enforce your service level agreement, warranty, pricing and discount decisions
  • When working with your business development group to negotiate a new technical or strategic partnership to complement your product, you need help from legal to formalize the terms of the relationship
  • If your organization requires it, when all your collateral must be approved by your legal department
  • When you want to protect your company’s Intellectual Property (more on this later…)

Most legal departments are pro-business and willing to go the extra mile to accommodate Sales, Marketing and Product Management. However Product Management and Legal can be at cross-purposes if you do not handle the situation properly.

The essential reason why a legal department may create difficulties at the worst possible moment (launch time) is that legal exists mainly to minimize the organization’s risk (although they like the word “mitigate” better). As you introduce new features, deploy new products, or want to expand your reach to new audiences, you are inherently creating potential risk. Making specific product claims, bringing an unknown party to the table, or targeting a new audience is enough to give corporate attorneys nightmares! The greater the perceived risk, the more time and energy must be spent – usually late in the launch cycle with the potential to erode your time-to-market advantage.

Hence the potential friction – or didn’t you want that launch bonus?

Maintaining a poor working relationship with your legal department could undermine your product initiatives in a number of different ways:

  • Delay your product/partnership to explore legal ramifications: How is our Intellectual Property protected?
  • Prevent you from creating impactful customer collateral by editing your material in a way that makes it removes its teeth: How can you back up your 20% ROI improvement claim when you have not implemented this product yet? Have you conducted a study to substantiate the claim?
  • Prevent you from packaging your product the way you want to by disputing the language in customer facing contracts: We never had these clauses before. How can we enforce this packaging?

The points Legal brings up are usually valid and must be addressed.

How do you prevent a breakdown from happening? By being proactive!!

Here are 3 practical steps you can take early on in the process or at any time during your launch process to avoid the situation:

  1. If you have put together a business case, in my book the most important section is the “business assumptions” section, where you lay out the conditions under which the business case is valid. Usually, there is also a section called “business risk” which lists all the bad things that could go wrong. No matter where you are in the launch process, you need to review those two sections periodically with Legal. If they don’t have time to listen to you, at least make sure they know you’ve made an effort to talk with them.
  2. Each time you make a claim in a piece of collateral (productivity increased by 20%, ROI by 30%) make sure you have the proper supporting data to back it up. Those that are really on-the-ball might incorporate productivity and ROI studies into the beta test plan. However, if you’re in the unfortunate position of not having solid supporting evidence, (your claims are the result of a theoretical calculation), then you need to negotiate language with Legal that communicates the same intention but does not expose the company. The point here is not to have the argument when the collateral is under review, but to have the discussion with Legal leveling advance for each claim you want to make to justify the benefits of you product. Once an agreement is reached, you can get to your brochures, white papers or eBooks. It is far better to hit a wall early on than when the collateral is written, illustrated and laid-out.
  3. If your pricing and packaging is different or appears exotic to the legal team–because you are targeting a new market, using a different channel or a new technology–you must be able to easily explain it to Legal, because if they don’t “get it”, chances are your sales force won’t either. Before you knock at their door, prepare in advance by asking yourself the following: Can you bill for it? Can you enforce the pricing with the customer? What are your proof points? Can you audit the customer to ensure they are paying the right amount? How does the competition package their offering?

Last of all, the legal department is a great resource whose input will make your product stronger. Just remember that they don’t like surprises. You need to be bold to survive, but you also need to ensure that the team that supports you is apprised of your thinking.