Being a sole in-house counsel in an office or region raises a number of issues for you. These include matters such as reporting lines, interaction with your legal colleagues elsewhere, and potential conflicts of responsibility. Dealing with these issues will help you succeed as a remote in-house lawyer.
Working remotely from the central legal department
If you work as a sole in-house lawyer in a regional or divisional office within your organisation, you may face some or all of these challenges:
- Isolation from your legal colleagues, making it difficult to interact with them;
- Dual reporting lines. You may report to a senior executive in your office and to the group general counsel as well. This can lead to conflicting responsibilities and confusion about the priority of tasks;
- Though people in your office regard you as part of the senior management team, you may come under pressure to go along with your colleagues’ plans, even when you have concerns;
- Your office may be focused on a specialism within the organisation, meaning you become a subject matter expert at the expense of gaining the wider business experience necessary to progress;
- If you’re based outside the UK, you’ll need to become familiar with local laws and customs; and
- You may find yourself engaging local external counsel that operates within an unfamiliar legal framework.
Meet these challenges with these strategies.
Define your role
Be clear what your role is. Are you there solely to support the business in that office or do you have responsibilities to the wider organisation? In what proportion is your time assigned? What takes priority over what. How are expenses (e.g. travel for the wider role) covered?
Clarify your reporting lines
Ideally, you want a reporting line to the group general counsel, or equivalent, even if you also report to a regional executive. Without a reporting line to a lawyer, you may find it difficult to share any concerns and knowledge relevant to the legal risk map of the wider organisation.
In a matrix structure, you need to be clear what your reporting responsibilities are. This is especially true if a conflict arises between your responsibilities to your local 'client', the wider organisation and your duty as a responsible lawyer. It helps if areas of potential conflict are identified and protocols put in place to ensure that your responsibilities and priorities are clear.
Go local, stay legal
Being close to the regional management will prove very useful. However, don’t allow yourself to be swept along by their plans without the opportunity to consider complex or tricky issues with legal colleagues. This is particularly so if any plans or activities give you cause for concern. This reinforces the need for close ties with your lawyer colleagues and dual reporting lines. Also ensure that your development and career plans, performance review and pay are determined principally by the GC so that all of the "levers" affecting your role are aligned with your functional reporting line and duties to the GC.
It's important to interact with the wider legal team, build collaborative relationships and to share knowledge and seek collaborative projects both within the team and within the wider business to improve your knowledge and understanding.
Engage local lawyers
As the sole lawyer, you’ll almost certainly be involved in engaging and working with local external counsel. You'll want to know who's being engaged and on what terms to ensure consistency with the organisation’s wider legal protocols, procedures and standards. Don’t let local business relationships take precedence if they’re not in the wider business interest.
Learn the local law and customs
These may be very different from those your colleagues at head office will be familiar with. As well as learning the local laws and customs yourself, you’ll need to brief those at HQ about them to ensure your interactions with them are collaborative and effective.
Build your networks
Building contacts in corporate counsel across the whole legal team (through co-working on departmental and business wide initiatives, social networking when travelling to their offices etc.) and locally will enable you to discuss legal and industry developments with like-minded people and establish a wider support network. In turn this will reduce your sense of isolation, improve your long term career prospects and reduce the chances that you will make a mistake.
As the sole regional lawyer, you have a great opportunity to be an influential player in the organisation and work closely with business colleagues. However, you’ll need to make sure proper procedures and protocols are in place, stay connected to the wider legal team and have opportunities to share knowledge and concerns, should they arise. Remember too, to develop your wider organisational knowledge and legal skills to further your personal development. Building a local legal network is a great way to share knowledge and get support.