Janice More, Executive Director of General Counsel, The Law Society of England and Wales, talks about the role of in-houe lawyers in businesses.
A global increase in regulation has led to the transformation of the in-house general counsel role in the business world. What was originally perceived as a role for those who could not make it in private practice has now evolved into a role attracting some of the sharpest and brightest minds in the profession.
Some in-house general counsel roles are among the most challenging, powerful and influential roles in law today. The demands on the in-house lawyer are increasing as they adapt to support businesses in meeting objectives in an ever changing regulatory and compliance landscape. The key skills and competencies for success are changing and becoming more reflective of a successful business executive. Communication, business knowledge, management and the ability to think strategically are vital.
There are many types of in-house roles in business today, from technical specialists who spend much of their career focusing on specialist areas such as intellectual property or environmental law, to sole in-house lawyers in start-ups, to general counsel who lead large law departments comparable in size and scope to some of the largest law firms. The types of skills that are needed and utilised by the in-house lawyer varies from role to role, although I would suggest that the ability to problem solve is central to all in-house roles.
The focus and key competencies needed for the in-house lawyer also varies depending on which part of the business is being advised. The business unit adviser will need to have somewhat different skills to the general counsel advising the Board. However I believe that there are some fundamental skills that all successful in-house lawyers have.
It is usually assumed, for instance, that in-house lawyers have the legal skills necessary for their role. However, a key skill is how the in-house lawyer relates that legal knowledge to the issue in question, exercising judgement and acting as a problem solver rather than a blocker. It is easy to say “no” to the business that you are advising, (and in some rare cases the answer will be no). Those instances, however, will be few and, more often than not there is a way through the issue, perhaps not as originally envisaged. A good in-house lawyer will be able to help identify the potential solutions and influence the outcome so that the business achieves its objectives in a legally robust way. Therefore influencing skills are important but business acumen, pragmatism and the ability to understand the business strategy and build the legal advice around that to achieve the business objectives is vital.
Many in-house lawyers believe that being seen as independent and neutral, without an agenda, is also vital, particularly as the roles become more senior. This can be tricky particularly for in-house lawyers who are embedded within the business units or are sole in-house counsel. There is a particular need for those lawyers to be skilful in persuasion and communication and have a good understanding of the business.
Above all the successful in-house lawyer will exercise integrity and judgement, as well as the ability to advise the business wisely in order to achieve the right results. This means applying technical legal knowledge but balancing this with a large dose of “nous”. This does not mean never making a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes, but those who rise to become leaders in the in-house world are able to learn from mistakes and have the resilience to achieve their and the business objectives after having done so.