Moving in-house: 5 skills of the successful in-house lawyer

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One of the key reasons lawyers in private practice wish to move in-house is to have a closer involvement with internal clients and the business. This article explores some of the key skills needed to successfully support the business.

1. Combining legal advice with company-specific know-how

This is about adding value. What internal clients expect from in-house lawyers is a partnership that provides reliable and pragmatic legal advice and exact understanding of company-specific know-how. The larger the organisation, the more multi-faceted and multi-layered the know-how.

Especially in year one, in my experience, developing an understanding of the internal know-how accounts for between 40% and 50% of the knowledge needed to effectively advise the business. This understanding includes the company culture but also, for example, who the key internal stakeholders are and how to engage them, what the precise next steps are and forecasting the life cycle of the legal support needed. The effective combination of expert legal advice and internal know-how is, in essence, what the in-house lawyer brings to the table.

2. The in-house lawyer translates and distils multiple advice

A successful in-house lawyer is a skilled synthetiser. When I ask non-legal professionals what kind of legal advice they value the most, their answer, in essence, points to ‘yes you can’ or ‘no you cannot’ legal advice. Internal clients do of course want to understand the full picture of alternatives available to them, risk exposure, risk allocation and so on. Above all, however, they value receiving clear, actionable, as-unambiguous-as-possible legal advice that answers the key question: ‘So what do we need to do?’

A successful in-house team will offer this on an ongoing basis and throughout the full cycle of a matter: from the very early informal discussions to the end product (i.e. the decisions taken by the business) and anything that follows. Project managing, translating and effectively condensing multiple inputs and external legal opinions (often, multidisciplinary opinions) and offering meaningful legal advice the business understands is, in my view, one of the greatest skills of the in-house counsel.

3. The in-house lawyer understands business priorities

This is about being part of a wider organisation. An in-house legal team’s priorities echo the business’s priorities: in the end, there is only one client. In this sense, in-house counsel holds a privileged position for fully understanding the multiple facets of what’s important for an internal client. And most importantly, why. To develop this, an in-house lawyer stretches the understanding of the client’s business onto how this sits in the industry in which each organisation operates.

It takes time and multiple discussions to deeply understand how priorities interplay with one another. How they move fluidly. How new scenarios suddenly shift the internal legal analysis. An in-house lawyer who works closely with an internal client is regularly exposed to such thinking – and businesspeople expect deep understanding of the business.

4. The in-house lawyer combines specialist advice with being first port of call for generalist advice

This is about being a problem solver. For many business clients, a ‘lawyer’ is enough of a specialist profession and the in-house legal team provides ‘legal advice’. The highly specialised profiles of the legal profession and the need for specialist inputs are, similarly to many technical professions, an aspect that in-house counsel will manage, which will not always be visible to the client.

Throughout the course of a legal career, most in-house lawyers will develop broad and varied experience and provide first high-level advice on many fronts. The breadth of this may range, say, from intellectual property law to competition law, from employment law to data protection law, to name few. They will naturally not offer specialist advice outside their expertise, but they will be expected to be problem solvers. This includes, similar to a GP, being the first port of contact for a broad range of legal matters. Successful in-house lawyers provide direction on many different legal issues that are relevant to the client’s business. Above all, they will filter and quickly determine whether, and at what stage, specialist input is needed.

5. Successful in-house lawyers speak the language of the business

This is about being an in-house function and belonging to an organisation’s culture. Speaking a client’s language involves adopting and, at times, mirroring the precise language of the business. It’s the skill of understanding the internal culture and what the client needs and ensuring that the client feels understood.

To translate what this may also mean in practice, I’d say that it includes being able to speak in PowerPoint and Excel in addition to Word documents and emails. This is about offering advice in a manner that visually resonates with (most) business clients. Expressing points using slides, when appropriate, is a way of translating words into visual concepts. It’s the skill of sending across a complex message without diluting its exact meaning.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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