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Finding the right seat

15 April 19

This month’s in-house round table focuses on winning trust as an adviser on more than just legal matters, and with that, influence at the strategic level of an organisation

by Peter Nicholson

As an in-house lawyer, how involved are you in your organisation? How do you win trust in order to have a say in strategic matters? How important is it anyway, to “have a seat at the table”? These were the key issues addressed at the latest in-house round table hosted by the Law Society of Scotland.

David Bryson, of Baillie Gifford and vice chair of the In-house Lawyers’ Committee, set the ball rolling by asking: “Do we as lawyers deserve a seat at the top table?” There is an evolution towards that, but generally it still has to be earned, sums up the answers.

“I think we’re still behind; the accountants have a seat at the table by virtue that every organisation has a finance director,” observed Colin Forbes of TÜV SÜD Services, after noting that in-house commercial positions were relatively rare until fairly recently. “It’s easier in the regulated sector because you have to have a compliance officer; otherwise in the private sector you’ve pretty much got to earn it.”

“You have to earn that seat, there’s no doubt,” agreed Jamie Lewis of aerospace, defence and security company Leonardo. His preferred approach is to “get our sleeves rolled up, work it through and find the best way forward”. Following a matter through, he continued, was “one of the joys of being in-house”. “If you can show you’re genuinely trying to help and not sitting on the outside, people start to realise this is a team they can come to, but you need to earn that as well: they need to see you are there working with them.” 

Wider influence

“It’s also about showing you can add some value and that you’re not just there to provide legal advice,” Alison York intervened. “That’s my experience of becoming head of legal at SEPA: I find I’m asked to the table because I’m able not just to sit there with a very narrow legal view but to look at things more strategically.” 

Jann Cameron supported her. “At Scottish Enterprise we’ve got lots of different parts of the business doing lots of different things, so for me it’s about knowing the business and being able to problem-solve. When someone comes to you, if you work really collaboratively you may know what they’re looking for almost before they’ve realised it themselves.” 

After 10 years, her view is that in-house lawyers add value as “part of the team with legal skills but also having developed more general business advisory skills”.

Nick Smith, of Edinburgh City Council, saw a “huge role” for proactive risk management: “being trusted to call things out at the right time, but most importantly when you do that, do it in a constructive way, so you’re not just throwing problems into the mix. Try to say ‘you can’t do that, but you can do this’.”

Clem Friend, of Aegon, highlighted being able to be there at the right time: “You don’t want to get to the point of having to say no because there just is no alternative way, legally they can’t do what they want to. If you’re there at the outset, you can look for an alternative way so it doesn’t go as far. It’s about establishing the relationship as much as anything.”

For Stephen Taylor, of AG Barr plc, being able to influence a business in a wider sense was a motivation to move in-house. He suspected many others thought the same: “Whether you think you deserve it, that’s always difficult because I guess lawyers are always quite self-critical – I know I am! But it was certainly an objective for me.”

Is there a risk that having a seat at the table risks sacrificing your detached view as a legal adviser? “To straddle that line you need to be really certain what hat you’ve got on,” responded Martin Campbell (Scottish Social Services Council). “The value you add is that you don’t give your advice in a vacuum, but if you also have to sort out the operations and the organisation, you need to not let that interfere with what your advice would be.”

Gaining trust

What does it actually mean to be a trusted adviser, Bryson asked? Forbes proposed: “It means your opinion is heard, considered, you’re not seen as someone who is causing difficulties for the sake of it, but someone who will listen, and will accept it if the business doesn’t agree with you provided there are no ethical issues involved.”

You won’t have to fight to give legal advice, York added; people will come to you and look for it. “At the right time as well” (Lewis); “Yes, and that you get it right” (Friend).

How might someone, especially if new to their position, win such trust?

Proactively, in short. Taylor’s company committees provided an opportunity to join “a project where I had not been brought in to be the legal resource... that’s probably not a bad place to start because you’ll find yourself getting a better understanding of your business, and maybe advising and asking questions beyond the legal”. In his soft drinks industry, for example, project teams are looking at the issue of plastic packaging.

“Also building relationships,” York followed up. “You can’t hide behind your computer screen and just pick up the phone or send emails; you have to get to know people and then they will start to understand where you’re coming from as well.”

Cameron opined: “For me it’s about showing some initiative; if you think something is a good idea, it probably is a good idea, and in-house is an opportunity to take more of a leadership role across the business.” 

At Scottish Enterprise she had set up a state aid community practice: “That was an opportunity I saw to bring everyone across the organisation with an interest in state aid together... It’s a good way to raise visibility, get people talking and bring them together.”

Hard conversations

Bryson was concerned about how to set perimeters, “because if you follow that through, very shortly you’d be running the organisation, doing everything for everybody”.

Lewis’s team has a monthly catch-up with commercial and procurement, on what the month’s priorities are, “so we know the key bids we’re doing or the key disputes, and that’s what we’re going to focus on as this month’s priorities... if you’ve got anything outwith that, come and check it first”.

Cameron concurred: “It is about prioritisation, and being realistic in terms of timescales and what happens when: having a plan to work to.”

Taylor admitted: “There are always hard conversations to have, how you prioritise and manage people’s expectations appropriately. When people do that with me, I’m always impressed, I think they’ve really got it together even if they’re telling me they aren’t doing something! Actually understanding what the priorities are and how they change is really important. It’s a constant process of monitoring.”

Smith considered – controversially, in Bryson’s view – that what he called “big conversations” usually lead to better relationships, building respect and understanding, “so if I understand what your problems are, what you’re up against, and you understand what I’m up against, and you have that open conversation rather than shy away from the difficult message, out of that will probably come an amicable solution that everyone can live with as well as a more trusting relationship”.

Proving your worth

When it comes to demonstrating the value the legal team adds, it isn’t always easily measurable. How do you do that without “nice bottom lines”, as Bryson put it?

Taylor described regular business partner surveys his team carries out. For York it was about “being a bit creative”, advising people who may not have considered all the options: “because we’re not quite so entrenched in the day-to-day business we’re able to come in with some alternative ideas, knowing what the legal boundaries are... and a commonsense view as well”. 

Sometimes it involves just getting business done, Friend observed, instancing their commercial contracts team. “And thinking longer term there is horizon scanning work – we’re very regulated and it’s about what can we do differently to be ahead of the market.”

Bryson recognised the tie-in with being a trusted adviser – but if there are big changes coming down the line, is it possible to put that constructively?

“Tell them a story,” Cameron suggested: “why it’s actually important, what they might want to think about, without doing their job for them.”

“The old adage, never bring a problem, always a solution,” Smith added. “It might not be the right answer, but you are being proactive and helpful, even if they disagree with your proposal.”

Campbell reflected: “There’s a bit for me about going back to first principles. Part of your role as a solicitor is to interpret what’s happening legally in a way your client understands. Most developments will be to cure a mischief of some sort, so if you can help your client understand that, it’s a lot smoother to implement it.”

That chimed with Bryson’s financial services experience. “Often rules come out which are painful for us to have to live with, but as a reputable firm, having proper regulated markets should suit us better, so let’s put up with the pain because it means it excludes people who don’t comply with the spirit of the rules.”

Aiming higher, he asked whether, since they seem to do well outside the legal roles, lawyers should be striving for top jobs such as director or chief executive.

“In my view yes,” Smith replied, “but you require a different mindset: stepping outside the legal world to another role, be it a temporary role on secondment or literally going out and doing something different.” 

He spoke from experience, having taken a few years out to set up and run a commercial and procurement savings programme, which delivered to the tune of £150 million.

Stupid is good

But occasionally, playing the outsider can work to advantage. Something triggered a discussion about asking “stupid questions”, on basic issues which are not always clarified when they should be. “I found it takes a while to get brave enough to start asking the stupid questions,” York commented. “Then when you start asking them you realise that other people probably wish they could have asked them too!”

“I think that’s one of the advantages of being a separate department function,” Friend continued, “that you can comment as if you are a complete outsider but have the knowledge to ask those questions and go back to the beginning and get the whole story.”

Taylor used it to build mutual understanding: “It can lead people with you to then support what you are doing, take a bit more time than they ordinarily would and make sure that what you are documenting is right. I’ve found that, asking stupid questions. And once you start, you never stop!” 

If you are interested in taking part in future round table sessions, please contact Beth Anderson, head of engagement for in-house lawyers, Law Society of Scotland: bethanderson@lawscot.org.uk

Do you know an in-house rising star?

Nominations are now open for the 2019 Law Society of Scotland In-house Rising Star Award.

Now in its seventh year, the award recognises the outstanding achievement of a Scottish solicitor with up to five years’ post-qualifying experience, or a trainee, working in-house.

The deadline for nominations is 5pm on Friday 3 May. The judges will be In-house Committee members and key individuals working with the in-house community. The award will be presented at a drinks reception following the In-house Conference on 13 June

Winner of the 2018 title, solicitor Sarah Haig, said: “Being awarded the In-house Rising Star Award was a professional highlight, and a brilliant reflection of the training and experience I received at Glasgow City Council. Winning the award has encouraged me to develop professionally and I have since moved to Optical Express where I’m looking forward to learning from a new in-house environment.”

To nominate someone you know who deserves this award, complete the nomination form and send to Beth Anderson, head of engagement for in-house lawyers, at bethanderson@lawscot.org.uk by 5pm on Friday 3 May 2019.

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