There are many differences between an in-house legal role and working in private practice. For example, most lawyers find that in-house culture, communications and hierarchies tend to be less formal. You’ll probably also have fewer support staff.
Another big shift in working practices is that, as legal services are not the organisation’s core business, your value is no longer measured by billable hours. Instead, the focus is on your productivity and the value you bring to the team.
Often, complex issues relating to risk, compliance and governance are part and parcel of daily operations, and therefore, in-house professionals are not only practising law but they are firmly positioned to defend the reputation of an organisation as strategic business partners.
The City CV team has supported many lawyers making this transition: from team managers and subject matter experts, to those looking for business partner or head of legal roles. Here are some suggestions for what to expect and how to prepare.
Has your legal training prepared you for a management role?
Managing other professionals, both lawyers and non-lawyers, is a prerequisite for in-house team manager roles. That means being comfortable with managing budgets, operational planning, workflows and KPIs. Crucially, your career progression becomes less about your technical knowledge and more about how well your team collaborates and demonstrates their value, as well as how you support their career development and personal issues.
Subject matter experts also need to understand the business environment
As a subject matter expert (SME) you’ll have detailed legal knowledge and expertise in a specialist business area, such as procurement or advertising law. This is a crucial role and you can expect to work with both your specific business function, such as marketing, and as a source of legal knowledge and expertise across the wider business. Your knowledge of current law will be in high demand, but you’ll also be expected to contribute to strategy with your views and opinions on how the future legal landscape could affect business or project plans.
Many of your colleagues won’t be lawyers and they’ll rely on you for clear, concise information and advice, with no legalese. It’s also worth remembering that business environments and priorities can change quickly and there’s a risk your narrow specialism gets sidelined.
Lawyers often sharpen their commercial awareness through cross-functional participation on projects. Equally, those involved in company secretarial roles will need to understand the interrelation of governance frameworks and how to effectively steer and navigate sometimes challenging board dynamics.
You can develop a broader remit by building strong internal and industry-wide networks and understanding the wider political, regulatory and legal framework that the business operates in.
Have you got the influencing skills to be a good business partner?
At business partner level you are the main legal point of contact, both internally and with commercial clients. You’ll need to provide high quality legal services that meet all the relevant business standards and KPIs. You’ll also be expected to find ways to continuously improve the legal service and enhance efficiency.
In addition to understanding the legal issues, as a business partner you’ll need an excellent knowledge of the risk appetite of the organisation and its external stakeholders. You’ll be responsible for identifying future legal issues that may affect the business. You may also be required to provide advice, training and monitoring policies to ensure everyone understands and implements the laws that affect their roles. This makes it a highly collaborative role that involves a great deal of resource management.
At times, you may come under pressure to take the business line, even if this conflicts with your view of the legal risks. You can’t always simply say “yes”. This is where you’ll need outstanding communication and influencing skills – and the self confidence and resilience to deal with partners or board directors with opposing views.
How do feel about being a department of one?
If you’re the sole in-house legal counsel or the sole regional or divisional lawyer, you won’t have a support team close at hand. You’ll need excellent interpersonal skills and a strong character to maintain the independence and detachment necessary to carry out your legal role. It’s also essential to establish clarity over your role, reporting lines and access to the board, particularly if you’re the first in-house lawyer in the organisation.
Don’t underestimate the challenges of being a department of one. You may need to engage external resources, or work with the external law firms already hired by various departments. The legal budget may also be held by other business units and you’ll need to persuade those colleagues before you get budgetary sign off.
If you’re working remotely from the central legal department, you may have to manage dual or matrix reporting lines. You’ll also need to ensure you have the proper procedures and protocols in place to stay connected and share knowledge with the wider legal team. Developing a good understanding of the available internal resources you can tap into and building a supportive external network are essential to your success.
Head of legal is a big career milestone – are you ready?
Head of legal or general counsel (GC) is a strategic leadership role that extends well beyond the legal function. You’ll be expected to get to grips with a diverse set of issues, from business and resource planning and identifying skills gaps, to performance management and team development. You’ll need robust performance metrics to demonstrate the legal team’s contribution to the bottom line.
You’ll also need the influencing skills to contribute to the business and culture of the organisation at board level. Your success will depend on you being integrated into the organisation’s reports, meeting cycles, budgets and the planning stages of strategy and projects. You’re not simply someone to turn to when legal problems arise.
How can City CV help?
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