In-house counsel can greatly enhance their effectiveness by broadening their skill sets. Diana Bentley reports

Most lawyers who move in-house are looking to work more closely with their clients and be an intrinsic part of a business team. But what is required of an in-house lawyer is something more than a good knowledge of the law. To more effectively apply their legal expertise in practice, counsel must develop an array of personal skills and gain a broad understanding of the business and social environments in which they work.

You must take more responsibility for your own development and to acquire the skills you need

Emily O’Neill, IHD committee

‘The skills required in-house are different to those needed in private practice – and they’re the ones not taught in law school,’ says In-house Division (IHD) committee member, Emily O’Neill, group IP and litigation counsel at Spectris plc. O’Neill had little exposure to management before joining Spectris, but soon saw that a greater appreciation of it was needed. ‘In private practice, you often only see a small slice of the pie. In-house, you see and must understand the full scope of matters to work best for your organisation, but also to help manage your own department. You must take more responsibility for your own development and to acquire the skills you need, especially if you’re in a smaller department,’ she says.

In the field

But if working in-house requires counsel to augment their non-legal know-how, it also provides the opportunities to do so. Working closely with non-legal colleagues is one vital means of development.

Joss Saunders, GC of Oxfam GB and Oxfam International, and his team members often visit sites where Oxfam programmes are underway. ‘We may visit refugee camps to take statements or be part of a multi-disciplinary team that’s conducting a non-financial audit. We also do a lot of training on project sites. It helps us develop a better rapport with our colleagues and to appreciate the complex environments in which they work. In-house, you must be able to empathise with others. We become better lawyers by understanding the context in which we’re working and the needs of our users.’

We spend a lot of time shadowing our operational colleagues, so we can appreciate what happens on the ground.

Tara Tynan Smith, Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police

Lawyers from private practice often need to adjust their approach when they move in-house, especially so in the not-for-profit sector, Saunders notes. ‘Here, in contractual work, for example, we’re not aiming to get the best deal possible for Oxfam, but to get a fair deal and establish a good foundation for a future working relationship. In our sector, it’s all about understanding our common objectives and the end client, not just the internal client, and that’s a different mindset.’

Similarly, Tara Tynan Smith, senior force legal adviser, Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police, and her 12 colleagues boost their knowledge of how they can work best by being exposed to the operational side of policing. An IHD committee member, Tynan Smith says: ‘We spend a lot of time shadowing our operational colleagues, so we can appreciate what happens on the ground. That can include a simulation of what it’s like to be arrested, to being booked into custody and spending time in a cell. That can really help when we’re handling matters like civil claims for unlawful arrest.’

In the community

Outside their own organisations, counsel can find plenty of opportunities for personal growth, too. Involvement in extra-curricular activities, like joining the boards of professional and representative associations, community associations or even political or neighbourhood action groups, can provide tremendous experience, believes Dr Stretch Kontelj, group legal director of Specsavers. ‘Work in these bodies can enable in-house counsel (IHC) to gain commercial skills that can be applied in the workplace and help them stand out from their colleagues. The more opportunity they have to exercise their judgement and ability to influence in a cross-functional setting, the better.’

Kontelj’s own impressive history of non-legal endeavours includes being mayor of the Australian city of Geelong, CEO of a sports company, serving on multiple boards and chairing a migrant centre. The benefits derived from non-legal experience is clear, he asserts. ‘You can see that IHC who have had such experiences grow in confidence and develop a way of working that’s intuitively more commercial and outcome-focused.’

At Oxfam, lHC are encouraged to become engaged in their own projects for poverty alleviation. ‘I’ve taken part in panels with retail industry lawyers to talk about slavery,’ Joss Saunders remarks. ‘We run courses for others outside Oxfam on charity law and law and development and have given seminars to law firms. We encourage our young lawyers to participate in these.

‘I point other IHC who ask me how they can get involved to – a network of lawyers who support poor communities by helping them gain access to justice. Working for such an organisation provides a win for the individual lawyer, who is more satisfied in their career; for the social cause that benefits; and for the IHC’s organisation, which will find itself with a staff member who has gained a wider skill set and is more motivated, having found a good balance to their work and wider personal and career goals.’

Branching out legally and ‘soft skills’

Emily O’Neill enjoyed serving on the board of governors of a secondary school and college, and helped take it through a merger with two other colleges. She learned much by working alongside several accountants on the board. Expanding the scope of their legal work can also provide IHC with not just legal knowledge, but also greater business acumen. While O’Neill first joined Spectris as an IP and litigation specialist, she now oversees an IP lawyer based in China, is responsible for the organisation’s international trade compliance and acts as IHC for one of the group’s operating divisions. ‘My legal work has expanded to include general commercial work for the division and I have a global remit for my various roles,’ she says.

Instructing and managing external counsel […] requires a good assessment of the use of resources and other management skills

Emily O’Neill

To help with her trade compliance work, O’Neill undertook specialised courses run by the UK’s Export Control Office and the Bureau of Industry and Security in the US. ‘These were very focused, but gave me an understanding of the objectives and expectations of the regulators. But the work for the operating division has helped, too. I’ve gained assurance and good international experience and learned how to ask questions more, and the division’s CEO has helped me understand financial statements and managerial matters.’

Like many another IHC, O’Neill has found that being responsible for a legal function requires managerial nous, too. ‘Instructing and managing external counsel, for example, requires a good assessment of the use of resources and other management skills,’ she points out.

‘Soft’ skills must be cultivated by IHC too, says O’Neill. ‘More persuasion and negotiation are required when you’re in-house. But the way lawyers present, isn’t the way commercial people like to receive information, so you have to develop your communication skills. To increase my budget, I have to convince the CFO that the money is worthwhile.’ She speaks at conferences and says judging audience responses and getting their feedback has helped her learn.

Formal studies

Meanwhile, formal studies can also round out an IHC’s education. Stretch Kontelj, who holds a doctorate of laws, an MBA and several other masters degrees, encourages his lawyers to undergo formal continuing education in areas like accounting, finance, marketing, human resources and health and safety. Members of his team have undertaken MBAs, master of laws, company secretarial studies, and courses offered by the Institute of Directors in corporate governance. Many institutions offer courses of particular use to IHC. The University of Law has a range of professional skills courses like ’understanding the City’, ’the skilled negotiator’, ’advanced communication skills for in-house law’, ‘impact and influence’, and ’presenting to persuade’. It offers post-qualifying courses on matters like risk, delegation and leadership.

Lawyers in Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police are encouraged to undertake professional development courses, including management and leadership programmes provided by the College of Policing. An advocacy course is being introduced for trainee lawyers and paralegals to help boost their confidence in court appearances, says Tara Tynan Smith. Officers and staff who are keen to develop their skills can apply for funding for external courses and Tynan Smith has gained qualifications in strategic management and leadership from the Chartered Management Institute. These have been of huge benefit, she says. ‘They’re not only informative, but also empowering. Several years ago, I’d dread management presentations. Now I have more confidence in such situations.’

If IHC need to broaden their knowledge and skill sets outside of the law, they are usually excited to be given the chance to do so. ‘They see it as a realisation of their goal to be business decision-makers rather than “behind the desk” legal advisers,’ notes Kontelj. While the demands of being IHC are considerable, it seems most relish rising to the challenge.