Swati Paul explains the key skills you need to add value in your role, backed up by two real-life practical case studies from her role as GC at London Luton Airport.
We hear the mantra ‘adding value’ bandied about a lot when we talk about the in-house role. But what does it even mean? I suggest three possible meanings:
- Having a unique skill set which helps your organisation achieve its goals.
- A way of differentiating yourself from external law firms.
- Bringing a valuable legal insight to the table.
I’m general counsel at London Luton Airport (LLA). It is the fastest growing airport in the London area; annual passenger numbers have increased from 10.5 million to 16.5 million in the last four years. Survival in such a business means being able to adapt to the organisation’s needs and having demonstrable skills (being technically good is a given, so this doesn’t count).
In this article, I set out some of the skills you need to demonstrate as in-house counsel to truly add value to your organisation.
This means the ability to communicate well and build relationships. If you are able to communicate with the people in your organisation, regardless of their age, gender education, culture, nationality, personality or style of working, this will be to your advantage.
Excellent written communication
You may think this is a given. But I have seen examples of poor, impenetrable communication from leading law firms.
The business I work in has multiple stakeholders. They are a diverse group, ranging from the local authority (the freeholder of the airport) and international shareholders from Spain / Australia, to the UK-based management team, with a new CEO from Spain. I simply could not do my job if I was unable to build relationships with all these people.
It’s a given, but you will need to understand the business – the nuts and bolts of how it fits together and all its commercial drivers. An airport is a multi-faceted, complex operation. LLA is a fascinating place to work – it is like a small city, with its own fire service, police force, chaplaincy and shopping centre. LLA has contracts with a complex matrix of businesses, including airlines, aviation service providers, transport providers, cleaning companies and retailers. There is also the difficult and responsible job of keeping planes and people in the sky safely. Each part affects the other parts. Without this understanding of how it all fits together, you will not be able to advise your organisation effectively.
You will need to be able to evaluate legal and, if possible, commercial risk.
By this, I mean understanding what the business is trying to achieve. If you can appreciate the bigger picture as well as the detail, that will help you greatly.
Depending on your experience, you must be able to lead and shape projects.
Skills in action
Below are two case studies that show how these skills can be applied in practice.
1. Negotiating a suite of contracts
Overview: A suite of contracts needed to deliver a project was prepared by an external law firm. Negotiation was necessary. At that stage, the senior procurement manager asked me to get involved, rather than the external law firm. I asked her to explain why she did not want to continue using the firm. She said that, previously, negotiations were prolonged and very difficult.
Action: I advised on this and was able to take a practical and commercial view on risk. We wrapped up the agreement in a matter of hours.
Outcome: I asked the procurement manager to further clarify why she asked for my advice. She said my operational understanding of the business and my understanding of risk made my advice on the negotiation easier to follow and more practically oriented. This saved time and money, and got the deal done.
2. Final document in a construction project
Overview: A construction project was in its final stages. I was asked by the director if I would work on the project instead of the external law firm, because he did not think that the law firm ‘added value’.
Action: I stepped in, asking for clarity on the context and requirements of the project. I produced a tailored draft document the next day.
Outcome: Given that a partner from the firm had been advising on the project before me, I took the opportunity to ask the director why he thought I added value?
He explained that what stood out for him was my understanding of the business’ needs and my tailored, timely, pragmatic drafting. Once the work was done, I asked him if I could mention his feedback in an article. He said that he was happy for me to include the following comment: “We love our internal counsel!”. (I hasten to add that this just relates to the work carried out in this instance – my work does not usually lend itself to such dramatic declarations!)
I hope this article gives you some ideas on how you can enhance your skill set and add value to your organisation. I believe this can only enhance your role as an in-house lawyer.
Swati Paul will be speaking at our annual conference on 18-19 June at Chancery Lane. To book your place, visit our Events page. Early booking fees apply until 16 May.