If you’re considering a role as a sole counsel, this short article will help you identify some of the key issues and highlight the skills and aptitudes required in the role. Please think very carefully if you are moving directly from a law firm role to a sole in-house counsel role as there are so many new aspects to take on board that it is not easy to make a success and fun out of such a move. Sometimes it is better to have had a role in a good larger in-house team before moving into a sole counsel role.
The sole lawyer
Not all organisations have large legal teams. Often, they have a small team or even a sole lawyer. Some international organisations have a central legal team in one location, with sole lawyers based in each business region. This article considers the role of the organisation's sole lawyer.
As a sole in-house counsel, you may have a budget to recruit a small team but, until that's complete, you’re on your own. Nevertheless, service delivery, performance measures and business alignment will be as important as in a large legal team.
The headings of the topics that you have to deal with and the activities that the legal team has to perform remain largely the same regardless of the size of the team (just you or 100+ lawyers) it is just that the size of the topics and of the resources available to deal with them may be different.
So sometimes the same solution can work for a large team and for a small team - but sometimes small teams and sole counsel have to come up with smarter and more innovative ways to resolve the issues, "necessity being the parent of invention" as the saying has it.
The other issues you'll need to confront as the sole in-house lawyer include:
- Reporting lines. You’ll want your advice and input heard by the business leaders and senior executives. And, while you won’t necessarily sit on the board, you’ll need access to those who do. Many people feel that it is better that this access is not via the CFO because that is the most complex, multi-faceted and conflicted role at the senior executive table and this increases the chance that what you need to be heard at that table will not get there accurately or at all. (It's better to be the CFO's compliance buddy at the table than one of their deputies outside of the room!). Overall, you’ll need to be clear about who you report to and your access to the board;
- Role definition. If you’re the first in-house lawyer in your organisation there won’t be an established job description or role profile. “Do the legal work” is a bit vague, but it does give you the opportunity to establish the template for legal services in the organisation. Start by carrying out an audit of legal activity and risk and making sure those risks are measured and managed. If you don't have the budget for a comprehensive survey, use meetings and questionnaires to get the information you need/ Remember what you are trying to achieve with your management is an agreed prioritised list of legal risks and then a level of resourcing that will allow you effectively to tackle all of the risks that are above the company's appetite for risk (i.e. things that you and the directors agree must get done to protect the shareholders and stakeholders short and long term interests in the company - as is required of those directors by the Companies Act 2006 - rather than are simply nice to have);
- Budgetary control. You almost certainly won’t be able to provide all the legal services your organisation needs on your own. As a result, you may have to build a team or use external counsel, subscriptions services, locum providers etc, or manage a combination of these options. Is there enough money available for this? Is it in your budget or do the business units contribute? In some organisations, the legal budget is ‘virtual’ in that it’s held by the business units that require legal support. In this scenario, you’ll need to engage with them before they finalise their business plans and budgets to make sure there's adequate budget. Remember you should work hard but not stupidly hard and you should work smart - fatigue leads to errors and to burn out risk which are not in your or your employer's best interests!
- Engaging external counsel. Will you control this process or do the individual business units instruct external law firms direct? Perhaps the latter was normal before you joined and part of your role is to control and reduce external spend. Understand when you’ll need to engage external counsel. Be sure to have thought how you will demonstrate that you are doing it effectively and only when actually necessary, And make sure there’s an accessible budget for it when you do;
- IT. As a department of one, you’ll rely heavily on the organisation's systems. Find out what's available to you and ensure that you have access to legal databases and tools that you'll require to do the job. Again, make sure that you've got the budget for your technical needs. It is worth contextualising these tools in terms of external spend saved - it is not hard to show how an annual subscription to a good tool could save you at least a day's worth of external legal spend on advice per year); and
- Loneliness. You’ll no doubt build good relationships with your business colleagues. However, you may miss the interaction with, and feedback from, other lawyers. To address this, develop your networks across the legal profession, either by joining existing groups or by building one of your own based around other corporate counsel in your industry or sector.
When you work in-house, you could be the only lawyer in the organisation, or in your region, at least. Without the support of a wider team close at hand, you’ll need to be resilient. This means working closely with business colleagues while retaining the independence and detachment necessary to carry out your legal role. You’ll need a strong character and excellent inter-personal skills to complement your legal expertise. And you’ll need a supportive external network.