Knowledge, development and learning curves

Taking a tour around the CLL articles recently got me thinking about skills and the extent to which lawyers are equipped to carry out senior roles in their organisations, whether in the commercial or public sectors.

Paul Bentall on 30/07/18

The fact is that the more senior you become the more you'll be expected to display a range of skills that owe little to your formal legal training and legal expertise. And if you rise to the heights of GC (or an equivalent role) your skill-set will need to be pretty formidable to succeed in a modern organisation.   What are these skills? As a lawyer you'll already have an excellent general grounding in the law and its ethical framework, with deeper expertise in particular areas allied to your experience in your own organisation and sector or others that you've worked in previously. 

What may come as a surprise to the new GC is the extent to which deep expertise about the legal issues relevant to your organisation and sector is seen as a given from day one. So, if you're new to the organisation, you'll need to get up to speed quickly on those issues, including the potential impact of political and legislative changes on the horizon. 

As well as developing your own expertise, you'll also be expected to be running a knowledgeable and efficient team (assuming you have one). If there have been previous issues with the team you'll quickly be reminded of them with an expectation that you'll have them all sorted in short order! What this reinforces is that your own effectiveness and success in the role is directly related to that of your team. And teams are usually perceived as being only as efficient as their 'weakest link'.

So you'll soon realise (if you didn't already) that you'll need to quickly build and run a top class team. This means getting to grips quickly with what the team does and whether there are any gaps in its legal expertise and wider skill set. You may find that you're in the fortunate position of having exactly the skills and resources you need in precisely the right roles and structure. More likely you'll know quickly that you need to make changes and that the process might be disruptive. And while you're changing things you need to ensure that the service to clients doesn't suffer. No pressure then!

Along with being a legal expert and a leader of a top class team, you'll also need to become deeply knowledgeable about the organisation and sector – not just from the legal perspective but from the wider business angle. So you do need to know how the organisation is structured and funded, the political and regulatory framework and its operating model. The larger and more complex the organisation the steeper the learning curve. But no modern GC can afford to opt out of acquiring expertise about these factors, not least as you need it to understand where and how legal services are best delivered and because they're a given for any business leader.

This brings us on to relationships, particularly those with the board, senior management, your internal clients, external advisers and your organisation's stakeholders – regulators, for example. You're likely to need to engage with all of these groups to a greater or lesser degree and you'll need to build a trust and rapport with them all. How you do this will partly depend on your style and approach but what is certain is that you'll need to work hard at keeping these relationships alive and relevant. While your senior colleagues should be collaborative and supportive, they won't be backward in asking for what they need from you. And you'll find that some of their queries require some pretty innovative thinking (and perhaps solutions) on your part. They may also be in competition with you for scarce resources so you'll need to learn quickly how to negotiate and make your case.
Going back to your team, while you have focused early on the strategic aspects of delivering legal services, you're also the leader of the team and the direct manager of at least some of the team members. Although you may have managed people before, they're now looking to you for leadership, direction and tone. Like it or not you're being scrutinised. You will know that managing a team is a hugely rewarding yet time consuming activity but one that it's important to get right as your success as GC depends on the effectiveness of your team. This means knowing your people and providing them with the skills, resources and support they need to succeed.

In the hurly burly of business activity it's easy to let your focus on people and their performance slip. While you will have some good colleagues to support you, it always pays to make yourself as available as possible to your team and to ensure that you 'walk the talk'. Building and exhibiting the culture of the team is another key aspect of your role and this includes providing the direction, standards and values that you want the team to work and be known by. 

So, in this quick sweep of the skill set of the modern GC we've established that you need to be an excellent lawyer; have deep legal and business knowledge about your organisation (and sector); build a top class team focused on delivering legal services in the right place and the right time; be a role model and collaborative leader able to forge strong relationships across the organisation and hold fast to your standards and values; be a strategic thinker and planner and have change management skills; be an exacting but fair and loyal manager; and have a set of business and interpersonal skills that allow you to operate comfortably with other business leaders inside and outside the organisation. And there are undoubtedly others not touched on here.

If you're worried that you might not yet have all these nicely polished and up to date in your tool kit – relax! We're talking about skills that can and should be learned and developed. So, (add to list) the fact that you need to be committed to learning and development, starting with you. Take every opportunity to strengthen and deepen your skill set and don't get hung up on not having it all handled from day one. No-one does. And it's the gaps and cracks that often provide the best opportunities for learning and development, even if it doesn't always feel like it at the time!

All of which brings us back nicely to the CLL content. The beauty of this is not so much that it's a complete reference set but that it's started a conversation about what it takes to be a modern in-house lawyer - from the new junior recruit to the experienced senior leader looking to take on new and different roles.
So please read and enjoy and, particularly, comment because it's by adding different voices to the conversation that the sum of experience and knowledge will continue to grow and develop.
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