What does the role look like - SME (subject matter expert)

This short article is one of a series looking at the role of the in-house lawyer from different perspectives and at different career stages. Here, we look at the role of a subject matter expert (SME) and the skills and aptitudes you’ll need to excel in the role.

The subject matter expert is a crucial member of an in-house legal team (whether it be a defined part of a lawyer's overall role or a whole role in its own right in a larger team). And many of the skills needed to perform the role are relevant to in-house lawyers generally.

The subject matter expert

As a subject matter expert (SME), you have detailed legal knowledge and expertise in a specialist area of business and/or legal activity (e.g. procurement, sales negotiation as business activity or, IP, DP, Advertising, Consumer sales law as legal activity).

For this reason, you may work closely with a specific business function such as sales or cross-border acquisitions and/or as a source of knowledge and expertise for your legal team and/or wider business colleagues. Alternatively, your work may involve generic issues such as the legislative and regulatory framework affecting the organisation.

So what makes an excellent SME? The six top attributes to develop are:

  • Legal knowledge. You’ll need to be familiar with the detail of the law in your specialist area. This means staying up to date on the legislative and regulatory framework that affects your area of specialism and understanding how changes in the law may affect the way your organisation operates. (Remember it is not just the law now but what we know or can make an educated guess about that could come into effect over the life of the contract, the warranty, the company business plan).

It’s also a great idea to develop your legal intelligence by way of a strong network of legal colleagues in the sector, good knowledge of which free and paid for knowledge tools you can access and sourcing and maintaining a relationship with relevant expert external advisers;

  • Business knowledge. Develop your understanding of:
  • How the organisation is structured and its financial and governance arrangements;
  • The business cycle, in particular for budgets, reports and key meetings;
  • The business' plans, strategies and risk management approach;
  • The sector and the political, regulatory and legal framework.
  • Value. Like all in-house lawyers, you’ll need to understand where your value lies. You provide excellent knowledge and expertise and help colleagues in your own department and across the business units achieve their goals. Your know-how is difficult to replace and expensive to buy in;
  • Good communication skills. Your colleagues will want clear, concise information and advice. Where this is in writing, make reports easy to understand by using headings, paragraphs, executive summaries and bullet points. Try to use established corporate documentation formats and language where possible to make readers feel at ease and focus on what you are seeking to say, not how you have presented it. Avoid legalese and language unfamiliar to non-lawyers -and remember that the key to a good message is that people see in the message "What Is In It For Them In Their Language."
  • Profile and credentials. Develop your reputation as an expert by presenting and writing, both internally and externally. Join relevant trade and industry groups and attend seminars and conferences, including as a panel member; and
  • Interpersonal skills. Avoid becoming a 'back room' lawyer. You need to be a good team player, collaborating and working closely with legal and business colleagues alike.

Is the role for me?

In house teams need SMEs. Whether yours is a dedicated role will depend on the size and structure of the legal team. You may only be able to work as a discrete SME in a larger legal team as smaller teams have limited scope for specialisation.

You’ll be able to provide legal knowledge that is difficult to replicate and not available elsewhere across the organisation. This is particularly useful when instructing external advisers.

In career development terms, becoming an SME is a natural development for private practice lawyers, but for in-house counsel it can be something of a double-edged sword. Beware of becoming too narrow in your expertise. The value you offer will drop if your specialism becomes outdated or sidelined in a fast-moving business environment.

SME's rarely manage large teams and the best GCs have frequently had significant business partnering experience as the role of the GC is far more about business partnering and managing teams and far less about the specifics of individual pieces of law.

Think about developing a remit broad enough to absorb business change. This will involve learning about the other business and legal issues affecting the organisation, but it could help your career in the long run.

Conclusion

As an SME, you have skills and knowledge that are valuable to the legal team and the wider organisation provided you stay up to date and relevant. You’ll need to develop your knowledge and skills and be alert to your specialism becoming obsolete or sidelined.