Can there be a better substitute for a full-time in-house lawyer?
I recently came across an advertisement offering ‘virtual’ in-house legal support. After highlighting the importance of having a strong legal team, the advert implied that an in-house lawyer on the payroll was an expensive hassle; that there was a cheaper way to access legal support.
Of course, not all businesses will have sufficient need to employ a full-time in-house lawyer, so a service that offers ‘pay-as-you-go’ support can be helpful.
But my issue with this advert was that, in promoting its service, it did a disservice to the work carried out by those in-house lawyers on the payroll tasked with looking after a company’s legal needs, by implying that it could offer something better.
Speaking at the launch of the Law Society’s GC350 engagement programme last week, Royal Dutch Shell’s legal director Donny Ching highlighted the three distinct advantages in-house lawyers offer:
‘In-house lawyers bring value to the table by applying deep knowledge and understanding of the business that we gain from just practising in there, day in, day out,’ says Ching, who joined Shell in 1988. ‘Not only do we understand the business drivers, the issues and the challenges, we also know the organisation better. When it comes to bringing knowledge and people together, we guarantee better business outcome.’
‘One of the biggest advantages we have as in-house lawyers is proximity to the business,’ he adds. ‘Not just physical location, but also the language we use and, more importantly, in the relationship that we get to build to enable us to be trusted advisers.’
As a result, strong, personal relationships are developed, which Ching describes as the ‘bedrock’ of in-house lawyers, ‘as these are the relationships that will be tested on the occasion when we simply have to say “no”’.
Shell’s in-house legal team helped the company save billions of dollars in external spend when it standardised commercial contracts. A ‘great business outcome’, Ching recalls, which came from an in-house lawyer who not only encouraged and influenced the decision to proceed with standardising contracts, but who then co-led the project and influenced the business outcome. ‘Nowadays lawyers are seen as part of the solution, not the problem,’ he notes. ‘With our seat at the table, we can also influence and lead the solution.’
Because of these three ‘i’s, Shell’s 650 in-house lawyers have gone from ’mere gatekeepers’ to ‘trusted advisers’, Ching says.
In-house lawyers, he concludes, ‘are a force to be reckoned with’. Going back to the advert I referred to earlier, let’s not underestimate their value, regardless of whether a company can afford to employ one or not.