Heads of legal and general counsel from across the sectors talk to Grania Langdon-Down about leading their teams and leadership at an organisational level

The number of in-house lawyers is on the rise and the size of in-house legal departments is growing. The increasing complexity of business and the necessity of cost-saving has ensured in-house counsel’s place at the heart of organisations.

A recent survey of in-house lawyers for The Lawyer found that there had been a rise in the number of respondents commanding budgets of more than £1m. And more than a third of organisations has their most senior lawyer on the board, with most of them reporting to the chief executive, the chief operating officer, or the finance director. They also often have extra responsibility for a variety of business support functions over and above risk and strategy, according to the In-House Attitudes Report, which was based on a survey of over 500 in-house lawyers from a range of seniorities and sectors in March and April 2015.

Only six per cent of in-house teams thought they were seen as leaders

But in spite of the prominence of the profession, the In-house Attitudes Report also revealed that only six per cent of in-house teams thought they were seen as leaders. This suggests that work is still needed on repositioning their role and contribution in the boardroom, and changing the perceptions of those around them.

With leadership more pertinent to in-house lawyers than ever, InsideOut talks to heads of legal and general counsel from across the sectors about what makes a good leader and what styles of leadership they bring to their roles.

Sapna FitzGerald, chair of the Law Society’s In-House Division, is company secretary and head of legal at LSL Property Services plc. Her career has spanned the Government Legal Service at the Welsh Office, Kelda Water Services, the Consumer Credit Trade Association and Aviva. In 2004 she joined LSL when the management team completed a management buy-out of Your Move and e.surv from Aviva (then called Norwich Union Life). LSL went on to list on the London Stock Exchange in November 2006.

I have to significantly reduce the legal work I do to manage my team more

Sole lawyer for the first year, FitzGerald expanded her team to four and then, more recently, to eight. With ambitions to grow it by another one or two, she has had to sit back and look at the way she is working. ‘There is a break point,’ she says, ‘and I have to significantly reduce the legal work I do to manage my team more.’ As the team has expanded so quickly, she sees her role as making sure everyone understands each other’s pressures and priorities so collectively they deliver what the business needs.

When it comes to leadership style, she says she is ‘still learning. I am aspiring to be inclusive but also decisive. I don’t want to lead by committee because that won’t achieve anything. But you need to be inclusive so your team knows how it fits into the bigger picture.’

Nina Barakzai, immediate past chair of the Commerce & Industry Group (C&I Group) is group head of data protection and privacy for the Sky group of companies, handling all aspects of privacy and data governance, with a team of three legally qualified and two systems qualified experts.

I have to have multiple leadership styles - one style will not do!

‘I have to have, as a leader, multiple leadership styles - one style will not do!’ she says. ‘If single words help to describe this style, it would be supportive, inclusive and democratic - where appropriate.’ She explains: ‘I need to be able to build confidence in my team members and empower them when they are in a supporting role. When we are sharing knowledge within the team, I need to adjust my style to encourage a free flow of ideas between junior and senior members. We may, for example, be doing work on social media which is new to the senior lawyer but very familiar to the junior one so I need to be both facilitator and mentor.’

Tom Keevil, a former partner with Simmons and Simmons, joined Barratt Development as general counsel and company secretary four years ago after similar roles at United Utilities and the Gallaher Group. His roles have been wide - at Barratt he is also responsible for health and safety and insurance, while at Gallaher, he ran security and trade mark and brand protection. While much of their work is outsourced, Keevil has a team of 14 and stresses the importance of having an ‘open door policy so people feel they can talk to you’.

Deborah Prince moved from private practice, where she specialised in IP, to Tesco, where she spent seven years. She moved to Which? as head of legal affairs before joining the British Heart Foundation in 2012 as head of legal and company secretary. She has built up her team from two and a half to seven.

Leadership is about ‘showing initiative, working collaboratively and giving your team space to do their own job without you micromanaging’, she says. However, unlike others in a similar role, she still does a lot of legal work. ‘I find management really boring,’ she admits, ‘especially having trained as a lawyer where you do really interesting work, such as governance and crisis management.’

Bev Cullen is president of Lawyers in Local Government (LLG ), which launched a mentoring scheme in April and provides networking opportunities as well as both black letter and soft skills training. She is currently on secondment from her role as assistant county solicitor with Lancashire County Council, where she was responsible for employment and litigation with a team reduced from 25 to 18 as a consequence of the cuts.

It’s about giving direction and inspiring people to achieve their own capabilities

She bases her leadership style on the idea that ‘to lead people, you should walk behind them. It’s about giving direction and inspiring people to achieve their own capabilities,’ she says. But how hard is it maintaining morale through rounds of cuts? ‘It’s about being clear with people what they can and can’t influence,’ she says. ‘At times you need to be upfront and say this is what we have to do but you can be involved in how we get there. This helps keep them engaged and brings out the best in them.’

Helping people work in such stressful conditions comes back to leadership, she says. ‘My approach is that we are all in this together and we can get through this. It is also important to create a culture where people can talk about their concerns.’

Geoff Wild is director of governance and law at Kent County Council and head of Kent Legal Services which, with 125 public sector lawyers, operates as an in-house trading practice, serving more than 600 clients nationally from across the entire public sector. He wants them to be seen as ‘talented entrepreneurs’ not ‘bureaucratic civil servants’.

For him, the ideal modern general counsel is a ‘lawyer-statesman - an acute lawyer, a wise counsellor and a company leader’ who takes a lead not just in legal matters but in the organisation’s position on ethics, reputation, public policy, communications, and corporate citizenship. ‘It is about moving beyond the first question - ‘is it legal?’ - to the ultimate question - ‘is it right?’, he says.

The key is to be ‘players not gatekeepers’

At the Government Legal Department (GLD), Claire Johnston is one of three lawyers at director general level. She has line management responsibility for five advisory divisions which range in size from 45-85 lawyers. She is also responsible for the Commercial Law Group of more than 100 lawyers providing an expert service across client departments. The GLD’s diversity champion, she also has cross-cutting responsibility for all ‘people’ issues. Each advisory division has a legal director who has to command the confidence of their particular secretary of state and the senior team in the department, understand their aims and come up with legal solutions. For her, the key is to be ‘players not gatekeepers’.

What role should heads of legal and general counsel take in their organisation’s leadership team?

Keevil has a presence on both the plc board and the principal committees to the board and is a member of the company’s senior management team. ‘Each business will have its own DNA and its own governance structure,’ he says. ‘From my perspective, being able to have that visibility and presence is of great assistance.’

As general counsel, you have to stand outside that circle of collective responsibility and decision-making

Now general counsel and company secretary of the British Heart Foundation, Prince reports to the CEO. ‘I am not on the charity equivalent of the board which, in my very strong view, is absolutely correct,’ she says. ‘As general counsel, you have to stand outside that circle of collective responsibility and decision-making. You have to be a critical friend and not dance to anyone’s tune or you could be put in an untenable position.’ However, she is a ‘bridge between the executive group and the trustees so you can raise any issues, confident that any concerns have been heard in the right context’.

FitzGerald goes to all the plc and executive committee meetings and takes the minutes but is not a director or on the board. ‘I am not sure I want to be - the lawyer in me takes over!’ she says. ‘A director’s role is different from that of the company secretary - mine is about smooth-running and ensuring good governance rather than formulating and delivering strategy. But it is important to be part of the senior management team and to maintain that level of trust and respect both for myself and my team.’

Wild stresses the importance for heads of legal in local government to be at the top table. ‘General counsel should act as their authority’s ‘conscience’, as a sounding board and source of sound judgment on questions in which ethical issues often shade legal determinations.’

General counsel must position themselves as full members of the corporate management team

But that means, he says, that general counsel must position themselves as full members of the corporate management team. If not, they risk being out of the information loop when they should be helping proactively shape the council’s activities and policies in directions well beyond the bare bones of legal compliance. Those combining it with the statutory role of monitoring officer should be effectively involved in all key strategic decision making.

However, he says that being trusted advisers on emerging policy proposals can potentially conflict with their regulatory role so they should delegate the case work on individual matters to the legal officers in their team.

Cullen says lawyers used to be routinely appointed to chief executive roles in local government. But now, she notes, even the most senior lawyer in some authorities doesn’t have a seat at the corporate management board and it is not always acknowledged that lawyers have the transferable skills to do the role.

So, whether or not in-house lawyers are destined for the board, how can they develop their transferable skills and build a leadership profile?

What is important, Keevil says, is to build up a network so you work with those who might be looking at you for a more senior role. ‘You position yourself by having a proven track record. It’s absolutely about getting it right, delivering advice on time and within the right budget. You want to be someone who is deemed to be commercially savvy and provides wise counsel but will absolutely uphold the administration of justice.’

A fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and an accredited mediator, Keevil draws on those skills to interpret and analyse issues and resolve them. ‘I would recommend anyone to do a mediation course, while understanding arbitration is an imperative,’ he says.

Cullen is working towards getting her Institute of Leadership and Management coaching qualification. She uses the skills as part of her management style. ‘It can be really powerful because managing is not just about work, it is about dealing with people.’

Barakzai, who is also an accountant, sits on the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants’ Research Advisory Group, working on Big Data, and has been appointed vice president of In-House Counsel Worldwide. She says being involved with external bodies provides invaluable access to legal professionals from across the sectors.

Being involved with external bodies provides invaluable access to legal professionals from across the sectors

‘Their expertise and insight can help you find practical and pragmatic solutions which you can tailor make for your organisation,’ she says, adding that being on both internal and external committees also helps develop the ‘softer’ skills that are critical to becoming a leader.

‘You may have to focus hard on confidentiality, on working within Chatham House rules, on maintaining objectivity and managing any internal or external conflicts of interest,’ she explains. ‘At the same time you will need to present your thoughts, ideas and conceptual approach succinctly and clearly, all of which will be of enormous benefit when you go back to your organisation and need support for an initiative.’

Everyone wants more for less and you have to justify any training

Keevil is co-chair of the GC100 standing committee on professional and development matters which supports those within the GC100 community looking at potential promotions with networking and mentoring. ‘Everyone wants more for less and you have to justify any training,’ says Keevil. ‘That is where GC100 is so valuable in giving you access to a network of people you can talk to privately about similar issues.’

How important is it to find time in a busy working day to be involved in external bodies? ‘You have to be realistic,’ he says. ‘There is a risk of taking too much on and you have to recognise work commitments may change so you need the support of your chair and chief executive in doing it.’

Having reached such senior positions, how do you encourage the next generation to take up the challenge?

For FitzGerald, it is about encouraging your team to excel. ‘If they then leave and get a better job, you have done your job getting them on the career ladder,’ she says. ‘I absolutely don’t want to become a manager who feels threatened by ambitious junior lawyers. If the team is doing well it reflects well on you.’

If the team is doing well it reflects well on you

In the charity sector ‘you can’t give massive pay rises, share options or send them abroad to do some sexy deal,’ says Prince. ‘What you can do is help them grow in experience by shoving them out to chair a committee or lead a meeting. They might not be ready - but what is the worst thing that can happen? You need to become recognised as an industry expert so you need to think about things contextually and be able to take a reasoned position.’

It is not hard to make time to develop her team’s leadership skills, she maintains. ‘I have an 80/20 rule. As long as someone is doing 80 per cent of the work I want them to do, the other 20 pr cent can be work-related stuff that they are interested in - whether it is being on speaker panels, drafting a response to consultations going to leadership conferences, going to the European Commission or whatever floats your boat. It is a great way to make your staff feel they are progressing.’

You will find far more leaders in-house than you ever find in private practice

Ultimately, says Wild, the leadership role in-house lawyers play ‘involves not just dealing with past problems, but charting future courses; not just playing defence, but playing offence; not just providing legal advice, but being part of the business team and offering business advice. It means being both a partner to business leadership, but ultimately the guardian of the company. Even more broadly, it involves the wise counselling and leadership roles which stem from practical wisdom, not just technical mastery’.

And where do you find these leaders? ‘My own view,’ says Prince, ‘is you will find far more leaders in-house than you ever find in private practice - and it has the added bonus of being far more fun.’