The five skills of highly effective in-house lawyers

The five skills of highly effective in-house lawyers

I spent some time this week with a group of in-house lawyers facilitating a discussion around the skills and capabilities that corporate counsel need to be a success, particularly if they are just making the transition from private practice.

The group itself was very diverse, ranging from a FTSE100 GC to a very recent convert to in-house life, after six years at a magic circle firm. However, despite this diversity, a number of key messages shone through. These are the skills that you need to learn to make it in-house, and very few are taught comprehensively in law firms, fewer still during academic training. 

I've hacked, shortened, edited and distilled further to come up with the following magic formula.... 

1. It's all about the business stupid!

At the heart of everything, is a genuine understanding of their own business. Plenty of private practice lawyers talk a good game about being commercial (and to be fair, some of them do have an excellent grasp of their clients' businesses), but there are plenty who glaze over when faced with a discussion of what's really important to their clients. I'm not talking about their views on IP ownership, or liability clauses; I'm talking about how the business makes money. What's the difference between a really profitable deal and an average one? What activities drive the profit margin? Where are the big chunks of cost and how can they be managed?

The discussion highlighted that this business understanding has a number of different levels. Perhaps the most important is an understanding of the commercial basics of the business - in particular how it makes money. But wrapped around that, but subtly different, is an understanding of the business environment in which the organization operates. This encompasses (amongst other things) competitors, customers and the supply chain. Some private practice lawyers who have a deep understanding of a vertical sector may well be able to demonstrate this, which is why true industry specialists really can add value by placing their advice in context. However, as I've written before, many law firms' vertical strategies only run skin deep.

Two other types of business understanding which were highlighted were firstly a solid grasp of the operational or technical detail about what the organization does (this will be important for commercial contracts and litigation) - this is the classic "the devil is in the detail". The old approach of "we'll leave the contract schedules for the commercial folks" no longer works when you are in-house, because you soon realise that when there's a problem, the chances are that it's the service credit schedule or the payment mechanism that's at the heart of it, and claiming that you only drafted the front end of the contract simply won't cut it.

Secondly, for more senior lawyers particularly, an understanding of the organization's strategy will be important. Not only will this help the legal function start to think ahead and assess the legal implications of the business' plans, but it will also allow alignment of legal objectives with business objectives, which is critical if the legal team is going to maximise its value to the business.

2. What language are you speaking? 

 The most fundamental rule that in-house lawyers need to learn early is the need to stop "speaking legal". Using legal jargon and concepts is a sure-fire way to alienate business colleagues. Internal clients and other stakeholders are likely plenty bright thank you very much, but have not had the benefit (or pain!) of years of legal training, so rather than using legal shorthand because it's quicker and easier for you, engage brain and translate into plain English. As with drafting, it's harder and takes longer to begin with, but the end product is far more useful to a non-lawyer.

The sting in the tail is that in-house lawyers shouldn't rely on their business colleagues to translate the "management bullshit" that permeates the corporate world (and let it be said, you can probably find a fair smattering of that in my blog posts, so I plead guilty!). A good working understanding of business terminology will make communication much faster and also facilitate communication with the consultants that will invariably appear on large projects. While easy to dismiss as "management speak" the widespread adoption of these phrases, particularly in large organisations, means in-house lawyers need at least a basic understanding to ensure key concepts are not "lost in translation".

Aside from the actual language used, the presentation of the advice was also seen as being really important. As a general rule, avoiding really long notes of advice was seen as a good starting point, but there was also an acknowledgement that good in-house lawyers are able to tailor the presentation of their advice for their audience. This doesn't mean compromising the advice in any way, rather that it is presented in a form that is appropriate for, and easy to understand by, the particular internal client.

One way in which the communication gap can be closed at a more general level is for the in-house legal team to train key internal groups on how to use a legal team effectively. This type of "soft" education may require an up-front time investment, but can pay dividends over the longer term and also help build relationships.

3. Cut to the chase!

A key point that emerged was that in-house lawyers need to have the ability to prioritise the issues. This helps their internal clients understand what is most important, but also if time is limited, will also make sure the lawyer focuses on the items that will have the biggest impact on the business.

The concept of "good enough means good enough" was discussed - the idea that in-house lawyers often do not have the time to do a "Rolls Royce" document review, and that there was a need for lawyers moving from private practice to become comfortable with the idea that it was better for them to spend 15 minutes looking at a document to highlight the key issues before a meeting, than either (a) for no-one to look at it at all; or (b) to wait for enough time to do a "proper job", only to find that the business couldn't wait for the advice and has gone ahead without any advice at all.

4. Get stuck in son!

Although not a skill, a can do, pro-active approach was seen as a valuable characteristic for an in-house lawyer. As one lawyer commented - "you've got get stuck in". This might mean picking up more basic tasks that might be delegated in a law firm environment, or it might mean stepping out of the comfort zone to advise on an unfamiliar area of law, in both cases to allow the business to move faster.

For transactional lawyers, commercial expectations have risen and the in-house lawyer is now expected to have good project management skills and work collaboratively as part of a wider team (it might sound simple, but let's not forget private practice lawyers often work in a very competitive environment, particularly when chasing partnership, and we all have stories of dysfunctional cross-departmental teams). These are table stakes. The very good in-house lawyers can go a step further, and help really drive deals through, using a combination of sound transaction management, good commercial nous, and that "can-do" attitude.

5. Don't bring me problems - they just make my head hurt

Good in-house lawyers, like the best private practice lawyers, are recognized by their businesses as problem solvers. By giving advice that is focused on finding solutions and using their creativity to overcome roadblocks, lawyers can really help their internal clients. Making sure advice is practical and not too abstract helps achieve these goals, but it's also a combination of many of the factors above that can lead to break-through solutions.

Take a good understanding of the business and the commercial context of the project, a pro-active attitude and the ability to prioritise the key issues, mix in the ability to communicate effectively and work collaboratively and you've got in-house dynamite, capable of blowing away even the most stubborn legal problem!

Surely there must be more to it?

Well, yes, of course. There were plenty of other skills and capabilities mentioned, from understanding the organisation and its culture, through to stakeholder management, relationship building and influencing skills. But there was also recognition that if a lawyer didn't get the five basics right, it may well be that their in-house careers wouldn't last long enough to allow them to develop the additional skills that sees the very top in-house lawyers rightfully claim their seat at the top table of the world's best organisations.

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