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Team of one

18 March 19

Acting as sole in-house counsel can be a particularly challenging position. The Society brought a group together to share experiences of managing the role

by Beth Anderson

You’re chatting to your colleague about the new series on Netflix you’ve just binge watched over the weekend. There’s a lull in conversation, then… “While I’ve got you, would you mind just sitting in on this meeting with Alice? Room 6, in two minutes?”

You hadn’t quite finished pouring the milk into your cereal and had been hoping to at least swap the trainers you walked to work in for those shoes under your desk. But your day rarely starts as you’d expect it, and after a couple of quick spoonfuls of Cheerios, you’re sitting in Room 6 trying to remember whether Alice works in sales or procurement and whether the story which is slowly unfolding will end with you drafting a contract or challenging one.

Sound familiar? If so, then you’re probably an in-house lawyer in a small team, and you’re certainly not alone.

Some 25 years ago, about 18% of Scottish qualified solicitors worked in-house. That’s risen to nearly 30% in the past few years. Previously employed largely in government (both central and local) and financial services, in-house solicitors can now be found in every sector imaginable – publishing to charities, small public bodies to tech giants, property developers to whisky distillers. And the number of organisations employing in-house lawyers has increased dramatically too.

I’m often (and increasingly) contacted by solicitors telling me they’re moving from private practice to in-house. Sometimes they’re just looking to find out how to change their Law Society of Scotland record; other times there’s a slightly nervous tone – “I’m moving to XYZ Ltd, I’m the first lawyer they’ve ever had.”

A large proportion of in-house solicitors are sole in-house counsel or, to put it another way, a team of one! Is this the most challenging career move you can make? If you’re coming from a big private practice team, how do you successfully make that transition? How do you manage the variety and volume of work? And where do you go to when you just don’t have the answer your internal client is looking for?

In January we got together a group of in-house lawyers to discuss some of these questions and figure out how the Society can support this type of role better.

On the spot

Vlad Valiente, legal services manager at Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, chaired the session and kicked off with a simple question about the transition from private practice to in-house. An in-house lawyer through and through (never having worked in private practice), he asked the group what the main differences between the two environments are and what, if anything, they missed about working for a law firm.

David Syme, legal director at G1 Group plc, has gone from a big team in a big firm to being the only lawyer at his organisation. “I do miss the resources and infrastructure that working in a large firm offers. Building up your own resources takes time and can be challenging.”

Andy Todd, general counsel at Springfield Properties plc, talked about a level of exposure in-house that you don’t have in private practice. “Anyone can ask you a question. In private practice, you probably only worked for a handful of clients at any one time and almost certainly had a just few contacts in each. Now you are surrounded by colleagues – your clients! – who can ask questions at any time.”

The group agreed. Susan Ferguson-Snedden, reasonably new to her in-house role and the sole solicitor at Historic Environment Scotland, was still getting used to her clients appearing at her desk. “You’re not separated from your client by simple geography any more. The lack of notice and time to prepare can be challenging.”

However, for Stephen Swan, legal director at Edinburgh Airport, that flexibility is clearly energising. “You may not always get the chance to prepare, and feeling exposed goes with the territory, but you can still control interactions with your clients in a way that wasn’t possible in private practice. Turn this to your advantage and you can build the sort of legal function you want.”

Angus Shearer, now senior legal manager at RBS, introduced himself with: “Coming from arguably one of the biggest in-house legal teams in the country, you’re probably all wondering what I’m doing here.” But for Shearer, it was clear that an earlier role at a tech company had been as rewarding as it was challenging.

“Working as the sole, and first, in-house lawyer at my previous employer was the most formative experience of my career. For me, the biggest transition was matching their expectations of taking on an in-house lawyer, with my expectations of being one. Both of us were pretty unclear on this initially.”

Understanding your role

So to the critical question, how do you establish your role as in-house counsel?

“The first thing I had to do was dispel the myth that the lawyer is the best paid guy in the business,” quipped Robert Hynd, general counsel at Damovo. He went on to stress the importance of building trust. “You need to let your colleagues know what you can do for them. Be the sounding board. Be the person that makes things happen, not the one who stops things.”

The often-used mantra “enabler, not barrier” clearly rang true with the rest of the group.

“Get out there and be approachable,” said Swan. “Once you’ve helped a few people, word gets around and more of your colleagues will start coming to you. It’s also really important to be proactive and understand the key parts of the business and what they do. Find the right forums that will help you to stay on top of everything that’s going on in the business.”

Valiente echoed these comments, observing: “You need to have a bit of brass neck. Go to the CEO and tell them: this is what the legal team can do for you. Make sure you’re at the right management meetings, and demonstrate your worth.”

Ferguson-Snedden has experienced this “getting to know you” stage reasonably recently. She recommended: “Meet as many colleagues as possible. Hear about what their roles involve and map out where you think the legal touch points are.”

According to Todd, the first few months in are critical: “Why have you been recruited? Everything probably functioned pretty successfully before you arrived, so you need to be very proactive. Stick your hand up and say, ‘Can I come along to that meeting? Can I be involved in that project?’ You need to show your colleagues what you can do and the value you can add to the business.”

Syme emphasised the important dual function legal has. “The role of an in-house lawyer is to be a guardian of the company. But it’s also quasi-commercial, it has to be. The challenge is being a lawyer and being part of the business decisions at the same time. Understanding the level of risk the business is willing to take is really important.” While Hynd agreed that in-house counsel’s role is to “manage risk, not avoid it”, he also cautioned: “I give my advice and make the legal risks clear, as very much one of the team, but at the end of the day, someone else is making the commercial decision and they can choose whether to take my advice or not. The fact that they usually do, doesn’t change that.”

Valiente’s tried and tested refrain that in-house lawyers are “enablers, preventers and protectors” seems to sum up this tension perfectly. As he explains to his senior management, “I won’t tell you never to do something, unless you’re about to actually break the law. My job is to advise of the legal risks connected to what the business is doing – not to tell you ‘no’. It’s not me making the decision, it’s you, but I can help you.”

All the answers?

And what about clearly defining your function? The group discussed whether any of them had gone to the extent of setting out exactly what they would and wouldn’t do in their roles. The general consensus on this was quite a clear no.

“It would be very negative to have an approach where you said ‘I can do this, but I can’t do that,’ and counter-intuitive to building those all important client relationships,” Shearer remarked. “However, you can and will set your own informal parameters. It takes time, but you soon get to realise on a department by department basis where your input is most needed.” For Todd, one of the biggest challenges of the role is that “You’re supposed to know the answer to anything legal – it’s quite a weight of expectation. There’s also the ethical element of not ‘dabbling’ in areas where you’ve no expertise.”

In Hynd’s experience, “You can certainly be a bit of a GP when you’re sole in-house counsel. You may not know everything, but you will, generally, know someone who does. Contacts and previous professional relationships are very important.”

Swan agreed and gave the last, very heartening, word: “I’ve never met another in-house lawyer who I couldn’t pick up the phone to and ask for some help.”

And that’s probably a good, and very important, note to end on. While I went in to the session assuming that the role of sole in-house counsel was an inherently lonely one, I left believing that this isn’t necessarily the case and it certainly doesn’t have to be. I always talk about the in-house community, because that’s genuinely what I believe our 3,000 in-house solicitor members are – a community. I’d like to make more of that sharing ethos and facilitate better connections between in-house solicitors – both those who feel a bit isolated and those who want to share some of their experiences and wisdom with others. If you fall into either category, please get in touch with me at bethanderson@lawscot.org.uk

Beth Anderson, head of Member Engagement – In-house Lawyers, Law Society of Scotland

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