Legal Voices: Ciarán Fenton - Leadership Consultant

Learn who your fellow community members are and share in their journeys.

The Centre for Legal Leadership

Interviews: Legal Voices Series on 25/06/24

With his corporate background in senior management roles at Hachette, ITN, Pearson and The Guardian Media Group, Ciarán is a leadership consultant & board/senior leadership team facilitator to CXOs, NEDs and lawyers-as-leaders.

He facilitates decision-making by working through the interdependence between personal and organisational purpose, strategy and behaviour (PSB) of board members and their organisations.

Ciarán is a mentor at London Business School, has lectured at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), The London School of Economics and Queen’s University Belfast, is a faculty and senior leadership team member on Paul Gilbert’s LBCambridge2 in-house counsel programme and a regular speaker and writer on board decision-making behaviour.

Following the publication of his book, The Modern In-house Lawyer: Optimising Relationships for Growth and Success in an ESG Environment (Globe law & Business, 2023) and our webinar in collaboration with its publisher, Globe Law and Business, Ciarán kindly took time out for a chat with CLL. Over our conversation he shared with us his take on the in-house legal role and his advice for legal leaders.

What brought you into the in-house lawyer community?

Many years ago, in my capacity as a career management consultant I worked with a senior general counsel. He asked me to research the business training available for in-house lawyers, a topic of interest to him. This research introduced me to a whole host of people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, including Paul Gilbert who asked me to join the faculty of his highly regarded LBCambridge2 programme for senior in-house lawyers at which I met GCs with whom I went on to work extensively. Then I became known by the in-house community - and then on the speaking and writing circuit.

What advice would you give to someone taking on a senior in-house role?

Frame your approach around three pillars: purpose, strategy and behaviour, what I call PSB.

First, make it your purpose (P) to practice law in-house - to be a lawyer first and a business person second. Of course, it’s important to play a key part in the business but at all times to remember that you practice law in an in-house environment – and that your overarching duty is to society under the principles set out by the SRA.

Second, in terms of strategy (S), my advice is to tell, not ask your employer client how you will help them achieve their purpose rather than asking them “what they need from Legal”. You’re the lawyer, they’re not. The asymmetry of knowledge is in your favour – have the courage to use it.

Third in terms of behaviour (B) I suggest your behaviour is driven by the link between your purpose and your strategy. By focusing on the practice of law in-house and by telling, not asking, the business what it needs in terms of excellent legal counsel and process, you will always know what to do to implement that strategy to achieve that purpose.

What are the biggest challenges facing in-house legal leaders today?

There are three.

The first is that an in-house lawyer’s client is also their employer. This results in an inherent tension as explored by many academics including Professors Richard Moorhead and Stephen Mayson.

The second is that in-house lawyers are very much on their own – they have very little regulatory support or oversight, as the thirty-three signatories of the now famous and relatively recent letter of complaint from those GCs to the SRA demonstrated.

The third is that while lawyers are well trained in the practice of law, they’re not at all trained in the art of leadership or in managing relationships. This presents a huge challenge for in-house lawyers who become legal leaders.

What steps can in-house legal leaders take to build relationships with C-suite colleagues?

The first step is to fully understand – at granular level – the organisation’s purpose and strategy and operating plan. Also – and this is crucial – to understand how well that purpose is shared across the C-suite. If there are splits, you need to know where they are and how they affect the execution of the business plan. If there are aspects of the purpose or strategy that you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to ask. You’re there because you’re a lawyer, not a business strategist. Feel relaxed about your lack of business knowledge but know what you don’t know.

The second step is to reframe the relationship between the legal function and your employer client. In my book, I cover this topic in detail across seven key stages:

  1. Secure a shared language from the board on its purpose, strategy and behaviour plan (PSB).
  2. Sell in the generic purpose, strategy and behaviour plan (PSB) of the legal function to your employer client in how it helps your employer client achieve its purpose within the law.
  3. Set up a legal executive committee to run the legal function as a break-even internal business.
  4. Remember to tell, not ask, your employer client what it needs from the legal function.
  5. Negotiate a legal business plan that aligns with the organisation's purpose while honouring the legal function’s purpose.
  6. Optimise your relationship with external advisers – especially law firms. They should help you.
  7. Ensure that the GC acts as the CEO of the legal function. No one else will.

The third step to take is to constantly educate the C-suite. Keep them informed of what you’re doing and how your work is helping them. In-house lawyers don’t excel at internal communication – due to their training - so consider a regular newsletter outlining what the legal function does.

How do you see the in-house role changing over the next five to ten years?

That’s a tricky question. Some years ago, on the speaking circuit, I made predictions, and I was proved wrong. I envisioned changes within a timeframe that did not materialise in that period. So it’s quite possible that, even in the light of the Post Office Scandal and other scandals, nothing fundamental will change.

That said, I’m cautiously optimistic that the letter sent by those thirty-three GCs to the SRA is the start of a movement that will lead to a greater understanding of the pressures in-house lawyers face and why boards should welcome a professional distance between them and their in-house lawyers in the service of developing sustainable organisations by making better decisions on boards.

I’m hopeful that the report into the Post Office Scandal, although it is by no means the first such scandal, will, due its impact on the public concentrate minds on the need for better regulatory support and oversight of in-house lawyers in a way that nothing else has done previously. But while the legal story in this scandal is huge, I believe the governance story is even bigger. There were clearly, what I call, sliding doors moments in the board decision-making processes at the Post Office as there are on all boards.

My hope is that boards will confront, what I call, their collective unconsciousness and pay much more attention to these sliding doors moments because they have a serious impact on people and outcomes.

I also see that the zeitgeist is changing. The way we work post-COVID-19, the way we view communities and the environment, society and governance (ESG) movement – even with its imperfections – are all reasons to be hopeful for a brighter future.

What skills, (other than legal) behaviour and leadership qualities do in-house lawyers need to develop over the coming years?

Emotional intelligence is key. This is no longer left-field stuff - empathy, self-awareness and the ability to get one’s needs met productively are essential to effective leadership. Acting and behaving consciously, as opposed to unconsciously, matter in the modern workplace but, as they’re not billable by the hour, they don’t always come naturally in a legal setting. Linked to this is the need to reconnect with one’s own feelings. You may have been trained out of this, yet you cannot lead if you do not feel. If you increase your EQ (emotional intelligence) you will be in a far stronger position to help lead on ESG issues which demand softer skills as well as legislative knowledge.

How do you unwind?

I love writing, I love music – all types, I saw Bruce Springsteen recently in Belfast. I knew his music well of course as a teenager in the 70’s but I was not still enough to hear his lyrics. Now I am and can. I unwind by disconnecting and not reading too deeply into news stories that I cannot influence. Cancer changed my approach to life and my values. I spend time with my loved ones and enjoy doing things I didn’t do as a teenager. I’m a fan of Eckhardt Tolle’s Power of Now. So, the concepts of living in the Now and carpe diem guide my days.

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