People are friendly but also rather hostile. They do not understand what you do but they always seem to consider everything as needing your approval and regard you as a blockage because you cannot provide it instantly. They do not want to know the law, they just want you to say “it’s fine” (regardless of what it is and whether it is even remotely a legal issue). They do not regard you as special, just expensive, which hurts a little. You feel that you could just put an auto reply saying: “whatever it is, it is fine, thanks, Legal”, and they would all be very happy.

You deal with things in the order they come in, unless someone shouts loudly. You wade through volumes of material, regardless of what value it adds and often you are not quite sure what that value is because the role of many departments (and the roles of the individuals within them) is unclear. Nevertheless, if they sent it to you, they must think that you need to see it, so you probably should take a look. However, frequently, the things that you really should have seen seem to shoot past in the business without actually coming near you.

You adhere to policies with exotic names like “Seven deadly sins” without understanding why or what they mean. You start to enjoy the thrill of the commercial deal and notice that people are far happier if you tidy up their grammar and say “there’s a risk”, as long as it’s understood that everything is ok. You also feel a desire for a share of their sales commission on deals that you boldly took a risk on to get it over the line in time. You have no real idea of what your role is, how to develop it or what happens next. However, that’s fine as everyone seems happy with you and says warm but non-specific things about how you are doing (except your partner as your hours keep creeping up and your home life is suffering) and life drifts by for a few years.

Then you start to get a bit dissatisfied. You need a pay rise to cover a bigger mortgage or you get a surprising poor year-end rating: not enough value added, no commitment to developing your career, you were found to be factually wrong on a legal point. It’s your wake-up call. How do you respond?

Responding to the wake-up call: putting yourself on track to a senior role

The “Y” fork: subject matter expert or business partner

The first thing to appreciate is that there is a potential “Y” fork in your career if you stay in- house. At a certain level, as you progress through a (larger) team, there may be an opportunity to become a subject matter expert or to move to a company that has this role in its team. In some ways, this may feel reassuringly like being back in private practice as you are encouraged to build and to communicate within the business about an area of legal expertise that the company has a large need for and a high level of exposure to, such as data privacy, IP, anti-trust or merger activity.

However, there is a vast difference between the private practice and in-house version of this role. Working in-house, you must proactively:

  • understand every aspect of the business that might be touched by your area of expertise
  • understand all the issues
  • communicate back to the business (directly or via your legal colleagues) at the right time and in the right way, and how they need to handle your legal issues in their business context.

Get any of these bits wrong and you have failed. This is very different from the reactive, responsive to a narrow brief, and “legally written” opinions or drafting that a private practice lawyer supplies.

Most lawyers start their in-house career with one area of greater relative expertise that they may wish to specialise in or maintain some specialism in. Nevertheless, even for a subject matter expert role, this normally needs to be the high spot on a plateau of well-rounded legal knowledge so that your specialist advice is set correctly in the wider legal context (as well as in the business context) rather than a narrow pillar of legal excellence.

However, few companies are big enough and have enough specific legal needs to warrant a dedicated subject matter expert who only does this type of work. For those that do, this is normally the smaller arm of the “Y” fork because, for the majority of companies, they recognise that their business has a rounded and diverse set of legal issues to address. Therefore, the other arm of the “Y’ fork, the generalist business partner arm, is normally the one that manages more staff and has the most senior roles within the legal function. Remember, it is called “general counsel” rather than “niche practice counsel”.

Taking the subject matter expert route

If you decide to take the subject matter expert route, you should:

  • be really excellent on that area of law and understand how it connects with other areas of law affecting your business
  • really, really understand the business and its plans, and understand how your area of law affects them
  • learn how to build friends, contacts, confidences and trust with legal and non-legal colleagues. They are your eyes, ears and mouth for communicating your guidance back to the business, and often your judge. You live and die in your role by how good you are at timely communication of the law in your area in their business context. This needs to be delivered in language they understand and can act upon, and in ways that make sense and provide practical, affordable solutions for the business
  • continually highlight the service that you provide incredible and believable ways, such as: value-added, business-enabled, risk avoided and issues resolved. In many companies (except in a crisis), your value is not seen as immediately relevant and directly applicable to making revenue or avoiding cost. Whenever times are tight in the business, you are vulnerable unless your case is well and continuously made
  • learn how to build and maintain long-term development plans for team members to keep them stimulated and engaged. Although you are unlikely to manage many people, those you do manage are likely to be with you long-term as there is less opportunity for progression in niche areas. You also need to have effective succession planning in place and ensure that your team’s knowledge is documented and accessible. Key person risk (exit or poor performance) is exacerbated if all the knowledge is in your teams’ heads. Difficult staff members know that knowledge is power, so do not give them that power
  • be certain that a niche role is really what you want because, once you are in a niche role, it might be quite difficult to get out of it again as there will be a much bigger market demand for the skills of the people who have taken the other arm of the “Y”.

Becoming a business partner

The good news is that there is more opportunity if you decide to take the business partner route, but there is also more competition and more risk as there is much more to get wrong. You have your rounded legal competence and business knowledge, and your high spot of expertise on your legal knowledge plateau, which helps you to stand out and find companies to work for where that area is the first among equals of their legal needs. For example, consumer law for fast moving consumer goods companies, M&A law for an acquisitive company or employment law for a volume employer.

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