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28 Jan 2020

The New In-House Lawyer: Corporate Culture Leader and Moral Champion

Many legal professionals believe they add value simply by being the best lawyer they can be. Giving accurate legal advice, managing their cost centre well, always being available. However, this is only part of the picture.

“Lawyers have a whole raft of skills, inherent and learned, that are even more valuable and impactful than these”, says Will Irving, Chief Strategy & Transformation Officer at NBN Co.

In a recent interview ahead of his presentation at Legal Innovation & Tech Fest, he explained that in-house lawyers can make a significant impact by becoming corporate culture leaders, playing a fundamental governing role in upholding acceptable behaviours within an organisation.

In-house counsels’ role as moral guardian

Whether they know it or not, in-house teams have a lot of sway in shaping what’s acceptable within an organisation. Irving believes lawyers should act as a “moral compass”, clearly outlining appropriate practices and calling out the rest.

“As a legal team leader, you are in a unique position to help lead corporate culture, as you typically have the best understanding of what is lawful and what the organisations’ expectations are. You are also naturally more attuned to reputation and risk than others in the organisation," he said

Lawyers must demonstrate with their actions what is acceptable, especially when problems arise.

“Legal teams make mistakes all the time. Everybody does. But when those mistakes are owned up to quickly and a best attempt is made to rectify them, that also encourages the same kind of behaviour in the rest of the business. But if people see that legal thinks it's okay to cut the odd corner, then everyone else is going to cut the entire block off.”

If your legal team doesn’t appreciate the significance of an issue or unintentionally turns a blind eye to certain issues that arise, it has a significant knock-on effect for the rest of the organisation, Irving points out, citing the recent banking royal commission as an example.

“If there are people in the room with a specific role to play, then they need to uphold that responsibility as far as they possibly can. Unintentionally giving an impression that the legal team will be "commercial" at all times, means some people will think that whatever they want to do commercially is ok, as long as they don't get caught."

EQ a much needed skill for in-house lawyers

Irving said that understanding personal dynamics and “reading the room” is also an essential skill for modern in-house lawyers to develop. And this requires a high level of emotional intelligence (EQ).

“At a very simplistic level, lawyers are listening to the business and working out what they want to achieve and then helping them do that. It’s diagnostic at its heart. I think any profession that is carrying out diagnosis and treatment needs a very high level of EQ.”

It’s about not only hearing what people are saying, but how they are saying it. What are they really trying to say?

“If there’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of power, or has a bad relationship with another person in the room, they are less likely to call things for what they are. Alternatively, they could be over-dramatic and try to create issues where there aren’t any.”

EQ also comes in on the delivery side of legal advice, Irving added. “Telling someone that they can't do something and that they're an idiot for thinking of it is probably not going to get them to come back to you the next time to ask for your advice.”

CEOs and Boards are looking for the voice of reason

Irving explained the ability to think analytically, without emotion or other pressures getting in the way, is an attribute that is highly valued by Boards and CEOs, but often something that in-house lawyers fail to recognise in themselves.

“Unlike board members who have reputations invested, and pressures of stock prices and stakeholder opinions to consider, in-house lawyers are more able to remain impartial. There’s a certain level of independence because you're not so focused on key performance indicators or external pressures.”

He also points out that in-house lawyers are one of the few groups that work very closely with people at all levels of the business, giving them the advantage of an unfiltered view into daily operations.

“If you're in a senior management position, the likelihood is that middle management is putting its own gloss on things or bringing its own opinion to bear. The board will often look to the general counsel for an independent view, almost a common sense check.”

Irving stressed that these skills are equally, if not more, valuable than legal skills, and in-house lawyers who show these strengths are the ones who will be noticed.

The three elements of high achieving in-house teams

When it comes to high-functioning in-house teams, Irving explained there are three elements that are needed to create a coherent unit within the business: Purpose, principles and metrics.

Having a purpose is a critical part of a well oiled in-house team. It provides guardrails for where the legal team’s mandate begins and ends, ensuring there is not a disconnect in expectations. “If the legal team is doing one thing, and the CEO thinks they're doing something else, that never ends well.”

Often there is a narrow view of the legal team’s role within an organisation, Irving continued. Having a clear purpose helps educate people on the many ways lawyers can help the organisation succeed.

Once your purpose is defined, some common principles should be outlined to set the standard of acceptable behaviours within an organisation. Irving said that in-house lawyers have a clear role to play in guiding the organisation here.

“A while back we did a session with the organisation, defining how the legal team would behave and what we were there to do. And a number of groups within the organisation adopted their own version of it.”

Irving notes that these need to be principles, rather than hard and fast policies, because the world is changing at such a rapid rate.

The final element is metrics, measuring the impact of an in-house lawyer. What are the metrics that you're using to show how you've used the company's resources? Can you clearly show the value and efficiencies you've created?

“In-house legal teams are seen as a cost centre. And while it's not a large cost centre, it is one that gets noticed, often disproportionately to the rest of the organisation. Establishing your value upfront means that when big issues arise or big transactions happen, you can quickly step in and say you need a large increase in budget and you won't have to fight a huge battle to justify it.”

Having clear metrics also allows you to track your improvement, Irving adds. “Everyone in an organisation is expected to become more efficient over time, and legal is no different.”

Hear more from Will Irving, Chief Strategy & Transformation Officer at NBN Co, at Legal Innovation & Tech Fest, 28-29 April, Sydney.

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