In the financial services industry we are in a time of unprecedented regulatory change. As a result, now more than ever, in-house lawyers are in high demand to guide the business.

To be frank my job has never been more interesting. As an in-house lawyer, I have always worked closely with the business to understand the business model and strategy, to ensure that I provide the most insightful advice possible. However, what is different today is that the in-house lawyer is starting to take a more influential role in helping the business model strategy in preparing for and adapting to the regulatory changes that are happening.

Day-to-day life as an in-house lawyer is inevitably varied. In essence, an in-house lawyer has multiple roles to play within an organisation: they must understand the business to be an effective adviser; they must understand the latest developments in law and regulation, to help the business navigate legal risks and regulatory change; they must learn to balance commercial interests and legal risks; they must focus on finding a solution; and they must first and foremost act as a guardian of the company.

It is always important to remember that we, as in-house lawyers, need to understand our client’s strategy and motivation and listen to their recommendations for improvement to our service. A critical component of any in-house lawyer’s skill set is an ability to listen and stay ahead in anticipation of our client’s need.

Providing support

Another important element of working with and gaining the respect of the business in a large financial institution is the team that you build around you and the management that supports you and sets the vision for the role of legal. I am very fortunate to have both an outstanding team and manager, which have been critical to my career development. I have learnt that, to inspire the best in people, they must know that you are committed to them, you will act with integrity, and will be honest and transparent in your coaching and interactions.

As a senior woman in my role, I am also keen to support and encourage the development of women in an industry that still has very few women in senior roles. I think it is beholden on women in our industry to help mentor and coach women early in their careers – so we can continue to create those opportunities. My organisation respects and values diversity and inclusion, from race to religion, gender to ethnicity, viewpoint to background. So my desire to foster opportunities for women is a very natural component of our organisational culture.


We have recently set up a mentoring scheme to help develop talent and support our diversity and inclusion goals. Having a mentor or being a mentor has a big influence on your development and confidence, and it is important to try and make a difference. I still stand by the advice that I received from one of my mentors early in my career: ‘Take every opportunity, enjoy what you do, and treat people as you would like to be treated.’

Your value as an in-house lawyer is not only about your knowledge but also about your connections and industry recognition, or leadership in the field of your expertise. As with any career, networking is a critical component. In my current role, being able to pick up the phone to my counterpart at another institution is an integral part of my job. In times of unprecedented regulatory change and a need for coordination across the industry, it is important to be able to compare notes and work together with other institutions towards implementation. It is much easier to do this if you already have an existing relationship. The business also relies heavily on our ability to communicate not only with our counterparts at other institutions but also with their external clients.

I have become a regular attendee at client meetings to help explain the regulatory changes being proposed globally. It is in this context that I have felt the most tangible value in the contribution of in-house lawyers, as we provide the business with a knowledge asset that is important to the development of their client relationships. This client exposure has also resulted in great personal success for me, in receiving a Global Counsel Award last year as Individual of the Year in Regulatory (Financial Services) and an International Financial Law Review editor’s choice in-house award this year. I would attribute this honour in large part to the quality of my team, the business’s trust in us and the exposure the business gave us to its clients.

To conclude, over my years of working in-house I have often asked the business what it is looking for in its lawyers and what attributes make the best in-house lawyers. The list below is in no order of priority, each item being equally important to the success of an in-house lawyer.

It is by no means an exhaustive list but I believe these qualities help define those who stand out as leaders and strategic partners:

  • Understand the business;
  • Communication, know your audience;
  • Stay ahead of latest developments;
  • Be solutions-focused;
  • Think strategically;
  • Act with courage and conviction;
  • Be decisive;
  • Protect the company.

Sarah Lee is managing director, associate general counsel global head of fixed income derivatives and regulatory reform legal, Merrill Lynch Bank of America