Making Your Mark as Sole Legal Counsel

August 7, 2023

As sole in-house legal counsel, you  have the opportunity to make a significant impact on your organisation. But to survive and succeed solo, you need to develop a diverse set of skills that go beyond your legal expertise. In this article, we tap into the years of being a solo in-house lawyer within the Stephenson Law team to help you navigate the maze with success and help you make your mark:

Personal Improvement

1. Building a Strong Legal Foundation:
You are not the finished article – you are always learning, so take the time and put the effort into honing your legal expertise. Develop a solid foundation in the areas of law that are relevant to your organisation, whether it’s contract law, data protection, employment law, or intellectual property. Stay up to date with the latest legal developments through continuous learning. You might do this by attending seminars, and engaging in professional networks, whether this is in person at events, or through social media, such as LinkedIn. A deep understanding of the law will form the basis of your ability to provide valuable legal advice.

2. Developing Analytical Thinking:
Sharpen the sword! Continuously build on your ability to analyse complex legal issues, identify potential risks, and propose practical solutions. This probably sounds familiar because it is the wording most job descriptions include for legal roles. So, what does this actually involve? Well, you need to be able to break down difficult problems into manageable components, conduct thorough research, and consider multiple perspectives (even the ones the business doesn’t want to think about – in fact, especially those). This will help you provide sound legal advice with confidence, because not only is it accurate, but it aligns with the organisation's objectives, commercial strategy, and risk profile (see Personal Improvement 6 and Impact Strategy 1).

3. Cultivating Problem-Solving Abilities:
Get creative (channel your inner Neil from Art Attack). In-house lawyers are problem solvers. Cultivate your problem-solving abilities by approaching legal challenges with a creative and innovative mindset. This involves thinking outside the box, exploring alternative solutions, and weighing the potential risks and benefits of different courses of action. If that means drawing a diagram, putting data into a table, or any other visual aid, then do it! By being proactive and solution-oriented and challenging the “knowns” in a productive way, you can effectively address legal issues show competence and commercial understanding and contribute to the organisation's overall success in a higher impact way.

4. Mastering Communication Skills:
You have two ears, use them – be an active listener – by understanding others' perspectives and concerns, you can build rapport and establish trust. You will need to communicate complex legal concepts to non-legal stakeholders clearly and concisely. Practice adapting your communication style to different audiences, tailoring your message to be easily understood by executives, department heads, and employees. Never assume that what you’re saying makes sense to everyone just because you’re used to talking about it. Remember, you trained and studied for this for many years, and that’s why you’re the expert!

5. Building Relationships and Trust:
Even the lone ranger didn’t do it alone, it is crucial to build strong relationships and establish trust with key stakeholders. Take the initiative to connect with executives, department heads, and employees across the organisation. Getting to know the wider team, building rapport and trust will enable you to become a trusted advisor, making it easier to collaborate, advocate for legal interests, and influence decision-making processes. Networking events and cross-functional projects can provide excellent opportunities to foster relationships within the organisation, or even a simple chat by the coffee machine or over a virtual call can make a huge difference.

6. Developing Business Acumen:
An in-house legal counsel is sometimes (accurately) described as an executive with legal glasses on. To be a successful executive in business, it is necessary to have a good understanding of the different functions within a business (e.g., finance, procurement, HR, IT and marketing) so that you can, ‘speak their language’, communicate effectively and ensure a proper standard of service for your clients.

7. Time Management and Prioritisation:
As a sole in-house legal counsel, you will often face multiple legal matters with competing deadlines, understanding the business (and their needs and risk appetite) can help you manage and prioritise accordingly (this is of particular relevance where you have multiple clients within the organisations (see Impact Strategy 2 below) Learn to assess the urgency and impact of various legal tasks and allocate your time accordingly. Effective time management will enable you to meet deadlines, deliver high-quality work, and manage expectations. If you need support from the organisation to help you achieve this standard of time management, suggest implementing a ticketing system – in other words, set up your boundaries with other teams so that you mutually respect each other’s time.

Impact Strategies

1. Understand the Business:
As well as understanding the basic functions within a business you need to take the time to thoroughly understand your organisation's specific operations, goals, and challenges. This will allow you to provide targeted and valuable legal advice. What makes the organisation clock tick? Speak to other teams, analyse press releases to see if there is a pattern in what the business chooses to highlight, and take stock of past mistakes to ensure any sore spots aren’t unnecessarily disturbed.

2. Understand the Client:
Alternative client categorisation: (1) the reluctant client; (2) the over reliant client; and (3) the stubborn client. Depending on the size of the organisation you work for and the complexity of its operations, it may not be immediately obvious who your clients are. In the in-house context a client is (generally) the manager or other colleague asking for advice. Of course, the organisation itself is the client but it acts through its board and management. Some clients are used to working with lawyers, others less so and the latter may not understand how to use you for the best. Consequently, you may need educate some clients about when and how to seek your help.

3. Develop a Strategic Legal Plan:
Once you’ve developed a good understanding of the business and the client, you can create a strategic legal plan that is aligned with your organisation's goals. Identify potential legal risks and develop strategies to mitigate them. Prioritise legal projects based on their impact and urgency.

4. Proactive Compliance:
Stay up to date with relevant laws, regulations, and industry standards. You can do this by signing up for news subscriptions from PLC, LinkedIn, and other industry-specific bodies or regulators, like the FCA or the ICO, depending on your focus and interests. Develop and implement compliance programs to ensure the organisation's adherence to legal requirements. This might be setting up some internal data protection training, to make sure everyone in the business is up to date with compliance and processes

5. Risk Management:
Identify and assess potential legal risks and work proactively to minimise them. Conduct regular legal audits to identify areas of vulnerability and develop strategies to address them. No business wants to feel vulnerable to attack, in whatever form that might take. You are a bit of a comfort blanket for management, so make sure you are having regular conversations with the board to ensure you are meeting expectations and covering all the bases appropriately.

6. Streamline Processes:
Embrace a headache to avoid a migraine – identify inefficiencies in legal processes and work on streamlining them. Implement or update technology solutions to improve legal operations, contract management, and document storage. This might seem like an admin headache, but just taking an hour or two each week to review your precedents or test a new system may save lots of time (and make your future self happier).

7. Cost Management:
Look for opportunities to optimise legal costs. Consider alternative fee arrangements with external counsel, negotiate favourable terms with vendors, and identify areas where legal expenses can be reduced without compromising quality. For example, Stephenson Law offers a cost-effective solution to sole legal counsels looking for support with their day-to-day activites (the Flamingo subscription).

8. Proactive Legal Guidance:
Some clients may express reluctance to use their lawyers because of concerns that you’ll block what they want to do. This can lead to the potentially dangerous situation where important legal issues are overlooked or ignored. Instead of being a "roadblock" or saying "no" to every request, strive to be a creative think and a problem solver. It might be as simple as changing the way you present and communicate the “bad news” to sales, finance or whoever has made the request. Use positive language to describe the issue you have identified, and instead of just flagging or listing problems, diffuse the situation and offer practical solutions and alternatives that enable the organisation to achieve its objectives while minimising legal risks.

9. Training and Education:
Conduct training sessions and workshops for your colleagues on legal topics relevant to their roles. Increase legal awareness within the organisation to foster a culture of compliance. Find engaging and creative ways to train employees on compliance matters – don’t just stand in front of a group and talk at them on ‘legals’ for an hour, because you might as well hand out pillows and invite them to take a nap! Remember, what’s interesting to you may be another person’s worst nightmare, so make even the most boring moments a dream for your team.

10. Document and Communicate:
Keep clear records of legal advice, decisions, and processes. Communicate legal updates and changes to relevant stakeholders in a concise and accessible manner. You never know when you might need to call on that information or advice to show your worth.

11. Demonstrate Value:
Regularly report on the impact and value of your legal work to the organisation's leadership. Highlight successes, cost savings, risk mitigation, and other measurable outcomes to showcase the value of having an in-house counsel.

Remember, as the sole in-house legal counsel, your role extends beyond providing legal advice. Act as a strategic partner to the organisation, using your expertise, value, and commitment to its success. You’re a part of the team, so get involved in business development opportunities, make an effort to volunteer, and run social events because there are more ways than one to demonstrate your value to the business.

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