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How the in-house legal team can add value

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Deborah Prince gives her views on ways in which the legal team can go above and beyond, and add real value to the organisation

I am a committed in-houser. Whilst I have great respect for my private practice colleagues, I can’t think of anything that would entice me back to private practice, as I find in-house work and colleagues more challenging, varied, commercial and, er… interesting.

My in-house roles have been at Tesco PLC, Which? (the Consumers’ Association) and, currently, the British Heart Foundation (BHF). So I have been lucky enough to have worked in the competitive environment of global retailing; for a highly respected and influential publisher and campaign group championing the rights of consumers in the UK, Europe and Worldwide; and the UK’s largest funder of cardiovascular disease (did you realise that heart disease is the UK’s single biggest killer?). Here are my views on how the legal team / you as member of your team can add value.

You can add value when you:

1. know your CEO

To understand what the business values, look to the top and find out what your chief executive officer (CEO) values. Rightly or wrongly, the longer I spend in-house, the more I realise that the CEO is the organisation. So, ask your CEO what they think is important, or listen to what they say is important. I’ve worked for CEOs who have said that governance ‘gives them piles’, but also those that think its central to a world class organisation. Some CEOs are comfortable working on the ‘margins of lawfulness’ if they see this is an opportunity to highlight an issue or its absurdity and it sits well with their brand. So take a steer from you CEO and focus on the areas they are interested in. You’ll then have enough ‘equity’ to be able to also do what the business needs.

2. understand risk appetite

99 per cent right may be wrong in private practice, but 10 per cent right may be enough in-house if the business is prepared to accept 90 per cent risk, or just needs a steer to get to the next stage in a hurry.

3. take time to chat to your commercial colleagues

Lawyers are always needed to deal with crises, but I’ve done my best work when I have taken the time to understand the business and ask, ‘Why are you doing it like that? Because I can think of a way that is much simpler/quicker/cheaper.’ Regular coffees with key people are important so you can understand their pressures and drivers. If you make them look good, you will earn their support and respect.

4. take time to think about things

Critically appraise what you are doing and its value. Think more than do. It’s very easy to get locked into a ‘task treadmill’. But we should take time to think about what the business wants for the short- and long-term: what can we do that would really make things quicker, simpler, cheaper or safer? What you come up with often has far more value than whether you have an indemnity in all of your contracts!

5. take the time to educate the organisation

If what you are doing is a waste of time, don’t do it and explain to the business why what they want won’t give the protection that they think it will. Businesses are all about managing risk and increasing value. Be honest – if it does neither, don’t do it and tell everyone you aren’t doing it and why.

6. refuse to value your work exclusively in monetary terms

A lot of what lawyers do simply cannot be quantified sensibly in financial terms. Did your intervention in that employment claim really mean the business didn’t have to shell out £1m in compensation? Our work simply isn’t as binary as that. We need to educate the organisation that we add value but in many different ways, some of which can be quantified financially and others that can’t. If you have to add a financial value to everything you do, then leave! To operate on such a reductionist level indicates an environment where regulatory and compliance issues are secondary to profit – which is crazy because, as we see all too often, governance failures hit profit and reputation harder than any squeeze on margins.

7. are NOT on the board

It is a common view that all lawyers aspire to be on the board because they see it as a badge of success, or at the very least, parity with the chief financial officer (CFO)! But I think being on the board, given that legal has a finger in every pie, is not workable. On occasion, lawyers need the space to be honest and say the things that the business needs to hear – which may not be what the CEO or chair want to hear. It’s for that reason I don’t like the idea of lawyers on the board as in-house lawyers – we have to be critical friends outside of collective decisions. I am all for lawyers on the board as they bring valuable management and leadership skills, but not if they are the organisation’s general counsel (GC). A GC’s role is very different to that of the CFO or chief operations officer, say, and collective responsibility should not be imposed on the GC. We need the freedom to roam and speak out!

8. do non-legal work

Lawyers are often the best negotiators in the business, so we shouldn’t be shy of taking on commercial work. I have done much better deals that some of my commercial colleagues.

9. ask lawyers in competitor organisations for legal advice

This may be a controversial one and certainly not something I would have had the courage – or licence – to do when I was at Tesco! But my time at the BHF has changed that. In short, there is a healthy network of lawyers who work in charities – you name a charity, it’s in the network if it has an in-house lawyer. We email questions to each other on a daily basis and get answers back from the 300-plus lawyers in the network. At first glance, you might worry that we are divulging the ‘crown jewels’ of the business, but often our questions relate to far more general things and the overall impact is to raise standards across the sector. Obviously, in the commercial sector there are sensitivities about competition law compliance and so on, but we need to think responsibly about how we use our budgets and how to get consensus across industries, especially in relation to general regulatory matters, which can only be good for shareholders, stakeholders, and consumers alike.

10. champion diversity

Embracing diversity really does lead to better results. It may be hard sometimes given the profile of the profession generally, but increased diversity gives you increased insight, which is a very powerful tool.

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About the In-house Division

Your In-house Division is dedicated to meeting the needs of in-house lawyers working in the corporate and public sectors, not-for-profit organisations and charities.

See our 2016/17 Engagement Programme.