Dennis Hall discusses the key skills and competencies that organisations prize in their in-house lawyers, and how they can help you get ahead in your career.
In this article, I consider the skills and personal qualities that you need to be a successful in-house lawyer, what corporate and public sector employers want from their lawyers, and the unique ‘acquired’ skills and qualities that help them go forward in their careers.
The fast-changing environment
We are influenced and changed by the environment in which we work. In-house lawyers need to be responsive to the specific business needs of their organisation, adaptable and react effectively to change.
The legal services market was transformed dramatically following the Legal Services Act 2007. We are yet to see the full impact of alternative business structures (ABSs). Legal services teams are now in competition with traditional ‘lawyer-managed’ firms. Competition has brought a pressure upon costs and challenges the retention of in-house’s capacity to deliver those services. Increasingly, lawyers are being ‘used’ differently.
It has never been enough to ‘just’ have good legal skills, and even more so today. The in-house role has changed, and will change again significantly – as managers, for example, in-house lawyers are rarely the sole providers of legal services to their organisation: rather, they will work alongside external providers, sometimes panel firms, which themselves will be ‘managed’ by the internal services.
As they progress, in-house lawyers who can shape and add value to the business, and/or demonstrate that they understand and can protect its reputational interests, will be immensely prized – senior corporate management want a legal colleague who can be their ‘partner’ in delivering success, who see themselves as a strategist, an enabler, and who can combine their understanding and application of the law with their knowledge of the business and its corporate goals. This is just as true in public or private in-house practice.
Changing character of the market in legal services
In the legal market, the ‘traditional’ law firm has been joined by a range of other service providers such as ABSs and, in the public sector, by a variety of shared legal services organisations. These organisations attempt to operate on a lower cost base and pass the benefits on to their clients.
In addition to the multi-provider environment, there is the challenge of technological innovation on legal practice: artificial intelligence, the use of data analytics, and the prospect of automated systems and processes that are being developed to deliver some aspects of legal practice – but which ones, and how, and what will the implications be?
Automation will impact upon methods of working and how legal services are delivered. It will also be driven by the mission to reduce costs. Some functions may be transferred to other personnel and won’t even remain within the current scope of legal services.
Employers invariably require staff with good communication skills. But in-house lawyers need to possess the ability to regularly communicate complex issues and impart advice in a range of challenging environments: to boards, senior executives, committee meetings and teams of professional colleagues. This is a world apart from the one-to-one solicitor- client meeting in a small room.
The importance of demonstrating ‘understanding’
In-house lawyers, whether working in public or private sector organisations, of whatever size, also need to demonstrate ‘understanding’ in a number of other important ways:
- they must develop an understanding of the business – as they begin their careers, the commercial basics need to be grasped quickly
- they must show that they possess understanding of the operational and technical detail of that business – for example, handling the tough negotiation of an IT contract. But beyond that, there is the drafting of the detailed schedules to advise upon, and this is not automatically a matter for the non-lawyer IT specialist in the business to handle.
As you progress higher up the organisation, there’s a third type of understanding needed: ‘strategic’ understanding – the ability to comprehend the strategy of the business, its corporate objectives and the market it operates in. What does success look like for your organisation, and how will it achieve that success? How can you play a part? This must be your primary focus.
Written and oral skills of the highest order are essential. You will be judged by the language you use and your choice of words, and whether you appear confident in what you say. For example, your CEO may require a briefing in a written report, and at short notice. And how would you feel about presenting a controversial report to your board, where a range of departmental experts need persuading on your proposed course of action? It’s not just the law, but a range of evaluated options they need from you.
Organisations appreciate precision, conciseness and for you to show you are truly an ‘enabler’ who assists in moving things forward. ‘Bring solutions, not problems’, as the saying goes, and be prepared to justify those solutions to others.
The in-house lawyer skills set
Legal training and professional development programmes are increasingly competency-based, a recognition that mere knowledge of the law is just the starting point for effective practice. As lawyers take on more senior roles, it is the soft skills and competencies that matter most:
- business analysis
- negotiation skills
- results-driven orientation.
These are the skills that GCs and legal directors should regularly demonstrate in their work alongside their core legal competencies. In-house lawyers are increasingly judged in two ways: internally, as to how they are responsive within their organisations; externally, as to how effective they are in accomplishing corporate goals.
I conclude with some thoughts based upon my own experience of working in-house, whether as an assistant, team leader or corporate legal adviser.
The best lawyer-managers distinguish themselves by leading by example, and encouraging others to give their best; they make time for colleagues while managing their own priorities effectively.
From a business perspective, they enable others to be successful and (invariably) are rewarded accordingly. They are respected within and beyond the organisations that employ them.
Ultimately, the upper reaches of the board or corporate team beckon, because the skills I have outlined here correspond closely to the requirements of successful executive leadership, too.
Corporate organisations need in-house lawyers. They are smart people, in the sense that they possess extremely important and uniquely fashioned skills usually developed where they practise. Steve Jobs of Apple had a point when he said: ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’
Dennis Hall is a local government legal consultant and bulletin editor with Lawyers in Local Government Ltd. He is a solicitor with over 35 years’ experience in local government in the north east, having latterly been commercial manager at Gateshead Council. His specialisms include governance, shared services and procurement. He is also a member of the In-house Division committee.
Dennis 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.