In my experience, an in-house lawyer is a different breed from those working in other sectors. In-house teams are small and their visibility within the business results in a constant flow of queries that require immediate attention. An in-house lawyer is expected to make decisions with the business people. Strong commercial acumen and an ability to offer practical business solutions are essential.
Business people do not speak ‘legal’, and nor will they read lengthy advice or guidance. Translation of the key legal implications, communicated in plain English, must be concise, and if the business’s plan is not workable you are relied on to come up with an alternative that is. The technical legal training a lawyer receives prepares them well for most of the challenges they will face. However, the requirement to make decisions with the business and to provide solutions-orientated outcomes set working in-house apart. The skills required to achieve this are not provided by the current legal education and training system.
So, while it is correct that an in-house lawyer’s role is to advise the business about technical legal compliance, they must also be a ‘business partner’. This term means more than being a lawyer. It means being called on to provide legal, risk management and strategic advice. It means knowing your business, your company and your market. It is a high benchmark to hit, and the key to reaching it is acquiring those skills which you do not learn at law school or on the degree.
Of course, legal skills and knowledge are core – you must be a legal expert first and foremost. However, being a lawyer alone, with skills in analysis, drafting, negotiation, advocacy, research and risk identification, will not by itself assist a solicitor to become a business partner. The skills required to do this are good communication, leadership and business acumen.
Lawyers are excellent communicators. We can already explain legal issues and argue our case. We can negotiate and we take great care in using just the right terms in our drafting. However, these are distinct legal skills, which do not necessarily mean that we can communicate well with our internal clients.
Business people require verbal and written clarity, with complex information distilled into a high-level overview. Lawyers working with them need to become adept at executive summaries, elevator pitches and delivering effective presentations. Lawyers will need to be able to draft business cases and evaluate strategic plans. When providing advice, instead of giving all the options/risks, in-house lawyers must focus only on what is relevant to the business and its aims and objectives.
When talking about leadership, I do not simply mean leading people – although in-house lawyers are often people-managers. I am referring to thought leadership, or leading the business in decision-making. You must be able to influence senior management at the highest level. Your advice and recommendations need to be delivered in the right way to secure their buy-in and adoption of your strategy.
You must be equipped to provide the solutions-focused advice referred to elsewhere in this piece. You need to be able to identify the legal problem, and provide a solution to it – which will still deliver the objectives, but in a compliant way.
Knowing the business is essential to success in-house. You must know your manufacturing or delivery processes and the business model, along with the objectives and goals. You should have an understanding of the accounting, shareholding and finance issues, as well as any other issues relevant to your sector. You need a deep knowledge of business strategy and operations, and business unit needs.
How to obtain these skills?
These skills are not taught on the degree or at law school. Similarly, it is unlikely that you will learn them on the training contract (unless you are one of the few who undertake training contracts in in-house departments). The majority must be learnt in context, through experience and understanding over time.
There are courses available to help you obtain these skills, and I would agree that a number of such skills can be taught: influencing skills, effective presentations, finance or drafting business cases, for example. However, most skills of the in-house lawyer are learnt ‘on the job’ and become slowly ingrained over time.
The learning process does not start only once the move in-house has already been made. Business acumen can be developed in any business. The law firm itself is a business, and private practice lawyers advise business people. The learning of these skills begins as we work alongside business clients. We start to develop a pragmatic approach to law. We start to know our clients’ businesses, perhaps, and to see how certain pieces of advice could benefit their strategy. We start to see how our advice can provide practical business solutions. Indeed, it may be this which attracts us to make the move in the first place.
How does legal education and training need to change to better serve the in-house sector? As noted, I consider that the in-house counsel must be a good lawyer, first and foremost, and the current education system will facilitate this. However, I do not believe that the newly qualified solicitor will be ready to make the move in-house immediately. The current system could be amended to include some skills highlighted here, but limited to those capable of being taught in a classroom.
That said, it is difficult to envisage where (or perhaps when) these skills could be taught. The most likely place would be as part of the current Management Course stage 1, which we all must take within our first three years of qualification. The Professional Skills Course is another potential candidate, but this would perhaps be too early in the career – given that the trainee may not be able to put the skills into action. Without the ability to apply these skills, it is likely that their teaching would very much remain an academic exercise.
In any event, the skills which cannot be taught (such as business acumen and pragmatism) would still need to be gleaned from experience – but building on the solid foundation of a good legal education.
Katherine Gibson is senior legal counsel at Coca-Cola