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Webinar Report: Optimising Relationships for Growth and Success in an ESG Environment

The subject of in-house lawyers’ relationships with their internal clients is always a hot topic. And for good reason.

Relationships determine how effective you can be at work, how well your organisation will achieve its objectives, how far you can progress your career and how joyful and fulfilling that career will be. 

All of which are the focus of Ciarán Fenton’s book, The Modern In-house Lawyer: Optimising Relationships for Growth and Success in an ESG Environment, published by Globe Law and Business.

At this webinar, we got to spend an hour with Ciarán to explore his thinking behind the book.

Kelly Thomson, Partner in the Employment, Engagement and Equality team at RPC hosted the event. Kelly was joined by Richard Given, Group General Counsel at financial services infrastructure business OpenPayd and Jenifer Swallow, a lawyer and advisor to businesses, including technology and legal organisations.

With his background in senior roles at Hachette, ITN, Pearson and The Guardian Media Group, Ciarán has over 20 years’ experience as a leadership consultant, board facilitator and adviser to CXOs, NEDs and lawyers-as-leaders.

He facilitates good governance i.e. good decision-making by working through the interdependence between personal and organisational purpose, strategy and behaviour of board members and their organisations. 

Why write this book?

Asked what motivated him to write the book, Ciarán explained that he wanted to offer in-house lawyers a manual which they could dip into as required  to find more peace – even joy - and fulfilment in their work. In-house relationships for in-house lawyers are complex, not least because their clients are also their employers, which introduces tension into the human dynamic. This can lead to the absence of peace, which is harmful to lawyers and to society. 

In time, we may see reform in how the in-house legal profession is structured, however, Ciarán is keen for lawyers to benefit from tools, models and personal fulfilment techniques, now, as reform will take time. 

Ciarán also shared how a diagnosis of cancer and his subsequent treatment pathways influenced his writing. “Without this, I would have written a different book,” he told the webinar. “Cancer made me address my purpose and define what I’m about. I learned that I must accept what is happening to get through any crisis or turmoil. In mindfulness theory, pain comes from non-acceptance of what is. I was not accepting what was happening in the legal profession. Acceptance is different from resignation. Once I accepted what was happening and sorted my purpose, I wrote a useful and benign, rather than a shouty, book for in-house lawyers”

On corporate misconduct at the Post Office

With the full report on events concerning the Post Office and its Horizon IT system yet to be published, Ciarán is reluctant to discuss the matter. Quite apart from feeling unqualified to comment – and distressed by the suffering it has caused its victims especially since it and all other corporate scandals were avoidable - he feels strongly that the legal profession needs to address its systemic issues before demonising alleged perpetrators. After the Williams Report is published he intends to write and comment on the matter at length especially the governance story, the decision-making behaviour in that board room way back at the beginning of the scandal’s timeline – the sliding doors moment of the scandal. 

Why ESG in the title of the book?

ESG is an acronym that will be with us for a very long time. Currently, the greatest focus is on the E (environment) and the S (society). However, in time, these priorities will all end up in the hands of those responsible for the G (governance i.e. taking sustainable decisions) – and this will involve in-house lawyers significantly. For that reason, ESG is inseparable from the in-house legal role and a key part of any effort to build relationships and maximise the effectiveness of your role. Ultimately, creating an environment in which sustainable decisions can be made is the heart of governance.

Mapping your relationships

He finds that in-house lawyers like his Relationship Grid tool. It maps relationships, either on paper, an Excel spreadsheet or simply in your head. Start with your relationship with yourself, then address those with your family (because families of lawyers can suffer), your friends and society in general. Next re-frame your professional relationships – those with regulators, your boss, your clients and your organisation. Preferring the concept of peace and joy at work over the term work/life balance, Ciarán suggests ‘Rag-ing’ your relationships (giving each one a red, amber or green) rating as in risk registers. 

Dealing with lawyer/employer tension

Ciarán quoted from the GC Response to the SRA In-house Solicitors Thematic Review, which letter is an appendix in his book, and which he believes showed great courage by the GCs who signed it and it will, he believes, become an historic document in due course because it’s not only the first public statement of complaint from in-house lawyers but also a cry for support. He quoted the paragraph in which the 33 signatories wrote that “financial pressures influence ethics…and most would find it difficult domestically to accommodate a binary or subtle decision between enabling a course of action and resigning”. This he suggested was lawyer-speak for a Plan B. If in-house lawyers need a Plan B they’re in serious trouble.
Unfortunately, this is where legal training is both wonderful and horrendous. For dealing with practical problems (rigorous assessment, analysis of the risks, and meticulous measurement of results,) it serves brilliantly. However, when it comes to leadership and people, the key qualities are feelings, emotional intelligence and empathy – none of which are billable by the hour. If you’re in a leadership role, your feelings and needs are as important as your ability to think and be the brightest person in the room. 

Owning your power 

Never forget the unique role you hold in your organisation.

As an in-house lawyer, you’re in a position of power. Yours is a noble profession. If necessary, fake it till you make it in terms of owning your power and asymmetrical knowledge fully and in telling, rather than asking, your employer what it needs in terms of legal counsel and process. Live by Section 1 of the Legal Services Act 2007. People died in trenches for laws and therefore that Act. It rightly enables you to have privileged conversations and do what others can’t do. But that means you have an overarching duty to society.  Embrace that fact, love it and be proud of it. And if you ever find yourself at a crossroads, stop to ask yourself, “What is my purpose?". It will always get you back on track.

Your purpose is to practice law in-house for the benefit of society. That purpose can bring you peace at work – even joy.

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