Deborah Grimason, general counsel and company secretary at builders’ merchant and home improvement retailer Travis Perkins plc, shares her thoughts on a range of issues around training and career development for in-house lawyers
‘Know your numbers’ is, Deborah Grimason says, the best piece of advice she has ever received and one she has abided by from early in her career. Along with ‘know your business’, it’s now one of her top tips for in-house lawyers wishing to tackle the age-old problem of how to demonstrate value to their company.
And it was business that drew Grimason to in-house practice: she trained in-house and, a short stint in private practice aside, she has remained in-house for the duration of her 26-year legal career. Born and raised in Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland, she credits her parents’ small wholesale bakery company with sparking her interest in business from an early age.
I want to be an in-house lawyer. That’s where I get the thrill from - being part of the business
On completing the solicitors’ finals, she joined the British Coal Corporation as an articled clerk, drawn by a combination of the business element - being able to do more than just the law - and the prospect of being part of a big team. Grimason’s time at the company came as the pits were closing and the business was in the process of becoming the Coal Authority. The legal team became one of the first to be ‘TUPEed’; so began Grimason’s tenure in private practice at west end firm Nabarro Nathanson. Although she credits Nabarro for providing her with ‘superb technical training’, she was keen to move back in-house: ‘I trained in-house and my focus is in-house; I want to be an in-house lawyer. That’s where I get the thrill from - being part of the business’. To this end, Grimason joined the Post Office, supporting Royal Mail International and Parcelforce as a senior commercial lawyer, which provided the launchpad for her first general counsel role in 1997 at Nokia.
Like many in the sector, Grimason identifies ‘translating your value to your company’ as one of the greatest challenges faced by in-house lawyers: ‘The business cares about the bottom line. Often we can save costs by doing things more effectively and efficiently in-house, but we can very rarely show generation of revenue because we’re an overhead.’
According to Grimason, a common error in attempting to meet this challenge is introducing time-recording. Although she concedes that it can act as supporting evidence in demonstrating value - particularly if the business is considering outsourcing legal services -she considers it an ultimately counter-productive exercise. ‘Time-recording is actually going to have a demotivating impact on lawyers. And how does it make you part of the business, if you’re justifying your existence with ‘I recorded X hours on your project’?’
Make a commercial contribution, which has legal in the background
Far better, Grimason argues, to ‘use your analytical skills, your risk assessment skills, your legal skills, and translate those into the language of the business.’ But in order to speak that language, it’s essential to know your numbers and understand the business. Although things are changing, Grimason believes that there’s still a huge number of in-house lawyers who don’t really know the business they support. ‘So walk the floor in the business, and understand it - for our business, health and safety is a big issue. Get to grips to what these issues mean for the business, because you’ll be able to make a contribution from your background, your training, and your thought processes as a lawyer to create solutions for the business around issues that are not strictly legal issues.’ In other words, ‘make a commercial contribution, which has legal in the background’. And as an additional - but key - benefit, building your knowledge of the business will help you build relationships with your colleagues and be seen as an integral member of the team.
What the business doesn’t want or need is ‘fence sitting’
Another challenge, particularly for private practice lawyers who move in-house, is breaching the chasm between being an adviser and a decision maker: ‘It’s a very different mentality,’ Grimason explains. ‘They come from a background where they assess the risk, they give advice, and somebody else makes the decision.’ But an in-house lawyer is ‘part of the integrated decision making process’, and Grimason stresses that what the business doesn’t want or need is ‘fence sitting’: ‘What they want to hear from you is: ‘yes, I’m aware there are some risks, there are some challenges, but if take this approach, then we can do it, and this is how we do it.’ Of course, there will always be a time when you have to say ‘no’ but if you have developed a good relationship with the business and are part of the team, it will be more palatable, and they will know it has come after exploring all other possible avenues.’
Education and training
For Grimason, there needs to be greater emphasis on in-house training and education from the outset of a solicitor’s career: ‘Our legal training doesn’t really lead us to being decision-makers, it leads us to being good advisors … we don’t equip people.’ To better prepare practitioners for the demands of in-house practice, she advocates ‘going back to source’ and providing a broader business training during the vocational phase of legal education. She is also keen to increase awareness of the in-house route, and to counteract the perception that going in-house is something lawyers do because they ‘can’t make it in private practice’. She thinks that more in-house training contracts and a more concerted effort on the parts of the Law Society and the in-house legal community are essential in raising the profile of this career path.
Grimason herself is committed to making in-house practice ‘better and more accessible’, hence her involvement in the Law Society’s GC350 engagement programme, which aims, among other things, to enable general counsel to influence the overall direction of the legal sector and promote the in-house profession. She also has plans to become more active in imparting her experience to younger lawyers. People development, generally, is a top priority for Grimason, who has her sights firmly set on developing the newly restructured Travis Perkins legal team to be ‘the best legal team they can be’. She considers her greatest achievement to have been contributing to the success of some of the young lawyers she has recruited and mentored, who have gone on to become general counsel or moved into operational roles.
It’s no longer enough to be just a good lawyer.
Grimason also identifies a need for in-house teams to focus on people development: to work with HR and other relevant departments to devise a programme, which could include secondments into other areas of the business. ‘It’s no longer enough to be just a good lawyer. I think the real challenge for in-house lawyers is to become rounded professionals.’ Grimason stresses that the aim shouldn’t be to push every lawyer towards a strategic role: ‘lots of lawyers want to be lawyers, but you need to know the business, you need to know the numbers; you need to have more than just a legal education.’
The business-aligned model
People are going to have to apply their skills in a broader business context.
Furthermore, Grimason predicts that in-house roles will increasingly require a broad range of legal skills - reverting to the ‘generalist’ model that prevailed when she was training. ‘Through the ’90s, lawyers became much more specialised and were driven into very niche areas. I think that’s turning again.’ She believes that in-house legal departments will become more business-aligned, as her own team at Travis Perkins has: ‘We have four divisions at TP, so my lead lawyers are business partners for those divisions, responsible for all the legal work that comes out of them. I think we’re going in that direction, where a piece of legal work doesn’t fall neatly into a prescribed category. People are going to have to apply their skills in a broader business context.’ Grimason considers the demands of working in a team that is business-aligned, and therefore being involved in the full breadth of legal practice under a business heading, to be far more interesting and motivating than a typically narrower remit in a law firm - an opinion echoed by her team.
Equally as important as team satisfaction, she believes, is that this business-aligned model makes the legal department much more integral to the business itself; this integration, in turn, eases the burden of demonstrating the value of the legal team to the company - and creates an environment in which Grimason’s twin tenets of ‘know your numbers’ and ‘know your business’ are almost impossible not to achieve.