11 Legal Training Questions with Mrg Simon

I sat down with Mrg Simon, Director - Legal at Missouri River Energy Services (MRES) to talk about how she delivers engaging legal training to employees.

Mrg (rhymes with "berg") is a South Dakota native, living and working in the Sioux Falls area. She has had a number of positions at MRES (including government relations), and started her legal career working in the South Dakota Supreme Court. 

Mrg is extremely committed to public service and was an absolute joy to work with on this interview. She provides a ton of great tips and advice for in-house counsel seeking to create engaging legal training for their employees. 

Without further ado, here is our interview with Mrg Simon:

1. Why did you choose to practice in-house?

Balance. I was seeking balance, and found fusion. 

In my early years of practice I had a tough time finding a position that offered both challenging legal issues and regular client contact at the same time. Work-life balance was my objective at first. I was vacillating from positions that offered one emphasis or another, trying to find balance in substance and work hours. Finding balance was my impetus to move from private and government practice settings. I wanted to work for a single client, in a fascinating and challenging industry, while also treating my personal life with equal importance. 

What I’ve found is beyond balance; it’s fusion. The demands of work and my personal life don't have me constantly struggling to level a teeter-totter. Instead, I feel like I have achieved what I’ve always hoped for: I love my job. And my family. And my life. It’s not so much a balancing act, as it is finding my higher purpose every day. It’s what thought leaders have referred to as “work-life fusion” in the recent past. 

To make the shift to in-house, I started at Missouri River Energy Services (MRES) in a position that didn’t require a license to practice, or even a law degree – I was drawn to the opportunity to use my experience and expertise in less traditional ways. And I was also drawn to the public mission. I began by managing the legislative program and really connected to public power’s not-for-profit business model and serving our member municipal electric utilities and their customer-owners. It’s a genuinely family-friendly, and professionally supportive work environment. I am now running the Legal Department and have a more holistic view for having worked in the legislative arena and learned the basics of the industry and MRES.

2. Why is it important for corporate counsel to train employees on legal issues?

First, employees need to know the law. We are all working toward a common mission, and understanding the laws applicable to our industry is every employee’s business. I’ve seen our organization grow from 25 employees to nearly 90 at a time when the complexity of the electric industry has been increasing exponentially. When I joined MRES, it was a small utility. Now we have employees in 4 states, and we conduct business in two separate organized electricity markets.

Second, employees need training from corporate counsel. In house counsel understands the landscape from the inside, works side-by-side with people across all departments. That understanding is essential to connect with the audience and understand their issues first hand – even before they understand that they have issues. This is one of the most rewarding parts of being in-house counsel: being present and involved at a level that allows me to be proactive - to really be a counselor, so we can address risk before it materializes in a costly way. Also, it is equally important that the training come from a lawyer. I’ve witnessed non-lawyer training on legal issues and it generally misses the mark in some important way. The Legal Department can sift through it all, and distill it down to what employees need to know.

3. How can corporate counsel get buy-in from management to take up employees' valuable time with training?

It’s a matter of credibility and respect.

As a member of the senior executive team, I had to earn the trust of the others at the table so they can depend on me to ask the right questions and provide the right answers. And I had to earn the trust of managers and supervisors. As in house counsel, it important to respect the limited schedules of others by prioritizing training topics, and by delivering succinct, timely and effective training. Like any professional, I have to earn my reputation for being relevant and efficient every day. We’re still a comparatively small shop, and every employee has a lot of demands on their time. So, developing a track record for efficient and effective training shows that we respect the value of employee time, which builds the credibility of the Legal Department.

If in house counsel can consistently deliver results, both management and employees are willing to participate in training. That willingness of the part of the audience improves the effectiveness of education efforts. Finally, I’m not above asking outside counsel (or a consultant) to do the training when it’s appropriate; the primary objective is educating employees, and using the right resources to do so.

4. If you had to list the top 3 most important topics for corporate counsel to focus on for employee training, what would they be and why?

Ethics. Every business depends on the integrity of its employees to carry out its mission and core values, and for its very reputation. General goals or platitudes are not enough – effective ethics requires specific training and specific accountability.

Compliance. In addition to ethics, compliance is a close second. It is important that each employee understand the compliance obligations essential to their job description, and the larger compliance picture. The rapid pace of changing regulations, expansion into new projects, and the challenge for subject matter experts to stay current (whether long-time employees or relatively new hires) – the Legal Department is uniquely positioned to take the lead when it comes to compliance demands.

Information Governance. Ethics and compliance training go hand in hand with the importance that business records be properly created and maintained to prove that we don’t just “talk the talk,” but also “walk the walk.” Whether the question involves complying with environmental regulations, handling employee discipline, or maintaining accurate financial records, failure to manage records has real legal, financial, and operational consequences. Every employee must be part of the team. In our organization, it’s the obligation of the Legal Department to make sure everyone understands their responsibility for documenting our actions and providing the resources to ensure that happens.

5. There's so much information on compliance, contracts, etc. How do you know what information to present and what to ignore?

It can be tough to separate my Department’s priorities from those of the organization. I have a naturally curious mind, so I could probably find a way to justify a new training topic every week.  However, I have the benefit of being integrated into the entire business, which gives me insight into the work load, projects, and dynamics of each department and the organization as a whole. Understanding the risks and resources of the enterprise, staying current on changing operations, and consulting with senior management are all important to prioritize training efforts.

In addition to focusing internally, it’s important for me to look outside MRES for emerging trends. A network of trusted resources – and a lot of reading – help to identify both known unknowns and unknown unknowns in a timely manner. Being an active member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the ABA, and trade associations (for professions like information governance, compliance, public power, finance, etc.).

6. What's the 1 tool you can't live without for legal training?

How about 2 things: Food and humor! I never underestimate the importance of making my audience comfortable – whether I’m talking to a room full of lawyers, support staff, or clients of a volunteer service organization.

Humor and a light-hearted, positive attitude go a long way to relax people, especially if lawyers make them uncomfortable. I’m not naturally funny and I’m terrible at telling jokes. Even with those limits, I always try to insert some humor – even if it’s at my own expense (a recent “selfie” with a cutout of Buddy the Elf was good for a little levity during December’s ethics training). I find that it’s time to start studying closely those authors and speakers who use humor effortlessly – that’s definitely an area that doesn’t come easily to me.

I find that offering refreshments also puts an audience at ease, and eliminating distractions by sure the room temperature, the lighting, and the table and chairs are all comfortable should not be overlooked. My audience is generally more willing to participate in discussions and receptive to learning when they are physically comfortable. I also try to know what I’m competing with and avoid scheduling conflicts – or at least minimize them – whenever I can. I once held an all-day seminar off-site at a hotel. About an hour into the presentations, a drum band started up in the next room with only a moveable wall between us. We couldn’t hear anything but drums! Whether the conflict is under my control or not, it’s my job to find out the best time and place for all involved.

7. Walk me through the step-by-step process you use to prepare for a legal training presentation.

(Okay, Joel, you asked for it … ! This schedule assumes I’m giving a major presentation and have a month or two to prepare. That doesn’t always happen, and when I have only a week or two, I take the same approach and just condense it.)

One to two months prior to training:

  • Develop the essential subject-matter content (this usually looks like a typical power point full of bullet points or an outline of a white paper – the lawyer in me can get all of the details and citations down)
  • Evaluate my audience (all employees or a subset? In person or remote?)
  • Choose my theme/story or stories
  • Confirm the technology set up for the training location (4x3 aspect ratio? 16x9?)

2-4 weeks prior:

  • Choose a fresh Microsoft® PowerPoint template (or other training tool)
  • Develop my PowerPoint presentation (select fresh photos, other visual tools)
  • Develop a list of specific action items or “how to” checklists for participants
  • Revise my content to meet format, message & audience – this is where I take my traditional, lawyerly bullet list presentation and whittle it down to a concise communications tool (not a script to be read from the screen).  

1 week prior:

  • If necessary, review draft with CEO, senior staff, or HR manager
  • Have at least one other person proofread my presentation
  • Develop back-up plan (handouts, pdfs, etc.) and provide alternatives for employees who are not able to participate in live training
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Confirm arrangements (Is an important person – like the assigned IT support person – going on vacation? Are written materials ready to go? Confirm numbers with caterer or other food and  drink requirements)

Day of the presentation:

  • Verify all arrangements are in place (food, drink, room, equipment)
  • Run through my presentation well in advance of the scheduled start time. (I start my work day at 5:30am. I don’t assume that all the equipment will always work the same as it did the last time I used it; sometimes the “usual” presentation computer/projector has or lacks an update that is inconsistent with the presentation file format, and I need to allow sufficient time to make any last-minute changes.)
  • Welcome participants, and have them sign in to provide necessary attendance documentation. This allows a chance to get the audience warmed up, assess their mood/needs (is the “class clown” in rare form or has there been a big development that day?).
  • Deliver the training, with confidence and enthusiasm, and encourage participation and assessments when appropriate.

Close the loop:

After I’m done speaking, I hand out and collect any needed forms or certifications. I also make arrangements for make-up training with any employees who could not participate in the live training. The day of the presentation (or the at least by the following day) employees are provided links to access the training materials – as well the recording, if one was made – so they can refer to them in the future.

If the training will include a webinar for offsite employees, I also make arrangements for the webinar several weeks in advance and arrange for recording of the presentation. On the day of the presentation, I work with technical staff to ensure the technology and remote connections and phone lines are working at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start. When using a webinar format, I start with a preliminary slide to let callers know that they are dialed/logged in correctly and the time at which the presentation will begin. If I want to allow for on-line participants to pose questions and be involved in discussion, I need to allow time well before the presentation begins to coordinate with each site to ensure all communication tools work seamlessly.

8. What are some successful presentation tactics for engaging your audience?

I find success when I use strong visuals, succinct text, and scenarios to engage the audience. I use animations in PowerPoint so that my audience doesn’t read ahead; it keeps them focused on the specific point I'm making and allows me to walk them through the scenario or a surprising conclusion. I also try to use current and timely factual references. If I’m struggling to find inspiration, I browse the latest presentations on LinkedIn® Slideshare, watch some relevant TED® talks, or even just browse through templates available on commercial websites (such as Envato Market, where I can find presentation templates, videos, and stock photos and music). (Disclaimer: I’m a satisfied customer of Envato, but they don’t know me from a hill of beans; there is no affiliation or remuneration for this endorsement.)

Avoid death by bullet points and eye exams at all costs.

9. What was the best legal training presentation you've ever given, and why was it so successful?

My best in-house legal training was the annual ethics training presentation I gave last December. Mandatory training on ethics is a drudgery for speaker and audience alike. It was the one training that I dreaded year after year, so I made a promise to myself to change that. I spent hours during the past year studying what separates the mundane from the memorable in terms of content, presentation materials, and delivery. And I devoted 40-50 hours to teach myself the latest technology and refine the content for the needs of the audience instead of giving a legal lecture to lawyers raised on the Socratic method. A public power colleague shared her approach to ethics training with me, and it really gave me a big jump start to break out of the rut of the standard presentation.

I knew I had achieved my objective when employees were giving me their full attention, peppering me with questions until I had to defer questions, and move to the next topic so I could get to most of the ethics scenarios in the allotted time. Employees at every level of the organization stopped me over the following week to tell me that they liked the training, they got a lot out of it, and to ask more questions based on the scenarios used in the training. Never before have employees told me they actually enjoyed ethics training!

10. What are some time-saving tips for busy attorneys preparing for legal training presentations?

7 Tips:

  1. Networking – colleagues are usually willing to share how they’ve tackled similar content
  2. Read at least one blog/newsletter on effective communication each week
  3. Check out the latest on LinkedIn® Slideshare
  4. Watch the latest TED® talks
  5. Use PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides templates; use visual tools to reinforce your message
  6. Know your audience
  7. Hone your message

11. If your friend, who just took a job as corporate counsel, called you to ask for advice on training their company's employees, and you only had a few minutes to give them your best tip, what would you say?

(If I have a few minutes, I’m going to give them more than one tip! Heck, we’re friends. And we’re both in house – we don’t charge by the minute for advice anymore!)

Know your co-workers and corporate culture. Think like a lawyer only to the extent you need to learn and teach content. Then, check out some amazing presentations and speakers. See and hear how they deliver their message, how they keep the concepts simple and use fresh, eye-catching visuals to reinforce their message. And invest $20 in a professional template that fits your theme, topic and audience. High quality presentation templates that already have thoughtfully crafted design slides, creative layouts, infographics, photo galleries, and multiple visual options are readily available on-line, and an inexpensive shortcut to fresh and professional presentations.

Thanks for the great interview, Mrg!