We speak to Mayur Patel, the new head of legal services at the Law Society, about how he plans to support in-house solicitors, and how they can tackle the challenges facing the sector.
Briefly, could you describe your career up to now?
I have had an interesting and mixed career. I started in private practice over 37 years ago with a small high street practice, before moving to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 1990, where I rose to become head of civil and European litigation. During my time at MAFF, I worked through the salmonella, BSE, and the 2001 foot-and-mouth crises.
In 2003, I moved across to Treasury Solicitor’s Department for career development and to broaden my experience. That was a ‘semi’-in-house position, if you like, because we charged clients, although it is a non-profit organisation. More recently, before moving to the Law Society, I was head of the Bona Vacantia Division, which deals with estates of people who died intestate or without a valid will and companies that became insolvent and their assets belonged to the Crown. We were therefore responsbile for administering estates as well as collecting assests of insolvent companies.
I joined the Law Society as head of legal services in December 2016.
How do you see yourself supporting in-house lawyers in particular?
I come with 26 years’ experience working in government legal departments, which is all by and large in-house. I want to share my knowledge and experience with other in-house teams, and in turn learn from them. Most people still assume when I speak to them that I work in private practice. I want to raise awareness of in-house lawyers and how they perform a very important role for the organisations they work for. I also want to show that you can have a very rewarding career working in-house.
Have you identified any specific issues or challenges facing the in-house sector this year?
One of the constant challenges facing in-house lawyers is ensuring we deliver a value-for-money, cost-effective and efficient service to the client. Of course, all organisations look at ways of saving money, and Legal is always one department they focus on. So the pressure to work as efficiently as possible is always present.
Brexit will create lots of opportunities for in-house lawyers, because I think this is an area where they can provide very valuable support to their organisations on a day-to-day basis, rather than just on a specific legal topic. In-house lawyers may not necessarily have the expertise to deal with the European issues, but I think understanding their own organisation and how it’s going to be affected by Brexit is a good start, because quite often, the difficulty is not in finding the answer, but in understanding the question or issue. If you understand that, then you can make progress in finding the answer. I think that’s going to be a challenge for all in-house teams, but a challenge they can rise to.
On an operational level, knowledge management is still a big problem for in-house teams. When I worked in government, while we had a reasonably low turnover of staff in most areas, when people did leave we lost their expertise and there was no means of capturing that knowledge or, if systems existed, people weren’t using them, as there was little awareness of the importance of knowledge management and its impact on an organisation.
It’s important that in-house teams have the right knowledge management and case management systems in place to ensure that knowledge is preserved. Otherwise, you cannot work efficiently – you could be instructing counsel or other experts on the same point multiple times because the advice has not been properly filed, or you find that new people are unable to access the files of people who have left, which means there is duplication of work. This obviously isn’t time- or cost-efficient. There’s a risk that clients may be given inconsistent advice from people in the same team.
On a general practical level, what can in-house lawyers be doing better to plan for the future and meet those challenges?
There’s a danger that working in-house can make you very inward-looking and focused on your own organisation and the sector it operates in, and therefore you may not always pick up on the external factors that are going to affect your clients, department and organisation. I think that is a key challenge, particularly in light of Brexit, and in-house teams need to look beyond what they are doing to see how they are going to be affected. Of course, this means that you can give your clients more in-depth and relevant advice, too.
The effect of external forces can be direct or indirect. So if the government changes policy on immigration, for example, the hotel and catering industry is potentially going to be directly impacted, but that may also mean that those in-house lawyers who provide legal services to those sectors are themselves affected. The effects can be felt in many ways, and some won’t be necessarily apparent to people.
From a career perspective, what do you think are the most effective ways to getting ahead as an in-house lawyer? Is it about building a brand for yourself, expanding your professional networks, or volunteering?
I think it’s probably all of the above. As I’ve said, there is a risk as an in-house lawyer that you can become isolated and very inward-looking, and networking can become more difficult if you move around in the same circles. You can miss things that are happening in the outside world. So from a career perspective, it’s important to build up good networks so you can mix with other professionals and people from different sectors.
I think that some new entrants into the profession are averse to an in-house career because they think it’s limiting, doesn’t pay well, and there is little chance of career progression. There is still a very solid barrier to be broken where the first instinct of any aspiring solicitor is to go to the private sector. What I would say to them is keep your options open, but think about an in-house career because it has lots to offer.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I’m here and ready, willing, and able to talk to other members of the in-house legal community. I have a lot of experience to impart. At the same time, I want to learn from other in-house practitioners and hear about what challenges they are facing, where there are synergies and where there are differences.