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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
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
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
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
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
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
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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