Why did you become an in-house lawyer?  

A careers adviser at university steered me towards the legal service of government.  I had never heard of it.  He said it might give me what I was seeking: working on important and topical issues with ministers whilst remaining politically impartial myself – in the office at least; public service; a rule of law culture; making the law and other work with a high legal content. It did. Plus highly able colleagues and a varied career.

Over the years I advised Home Secretaries, Attorney-Generals, Defence Secretaries, Trade Secretaries and Revenue & Customs Commissioners on crises and other front-page news events, major legislation and actual and potential litigation. Issues involved law and order, national security, public safety, prison riots, the economy, jobs, the prosecution of crime. Much of the time involved finding a way through seemingly intractable problems – a legal way but often one where high levels of risk were accepted by the ministerial clients. There was plenty of drama and high tension along the way in Parliament, in ministerial offices and in the courts – often in all three at once -  and we would go back home to find our work in the news and on the front pages of the papers and on the Parliament Channel. 

As General Counsel and Solicitor at HMRC I led over 400 staff and managed a budget of over £50m. It was one of the largest in-house legal positions in the country. We had a large and diverse advisory practice, lots of law-making, and litigation that affected tens of £billions of tax every year. We were regularly in the Supreme Court and our biggest cases could, if lost, have an impact on the economy and on the size and scope of the funds available to government to spend on its programmes. I was actively involved in the recruitment, induction, training and career development of all my lawyers – a heavy responsibility but ultimately highly fulfilling.

What have you needed to learn as an in-house lawyer (that they didn’t teach you in Law School)?  

Risk. My public law lecturers tended to focus on whether a case was won or lost, but I learned over time that when reaching decisions, government has to take account of the widest set of considerations, of which the chances of prevailing in individual pieces of litigation are only one part, usually an important part but nevertheless not the only part. 

What are the key skills that will be needed by future in-house lawyers?  

People will tell you all sorts of things about technology and AI, and they won’t be wrong, but the heart of the in-house role will remain the same: know your law, understand your client’s needs, give advice that meets those needs, analyse, challenge, be constructive, help shape solutions, all to be achieved within a relationship of trust that you foster with clients all across the organisation.

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?  

Saying yes to unlikely opportunities really does pay off. 

Who’s been the most influential person in your career? 

So many wonderful colleagues over the years have been, and still are, “critical friends” to me. If I had to single out one, it would be the first senior lawyer to whom as a 24 year-old I was attached on a law reform Bill in the Home Office.  A consummate legal adviser, he later reached the top of his profession as Treasury Solicitor and head of the government legal service. In the jargon he “showed me what good looked like” and inspired me for the rest of my career.

What makes a good leader?  

There’s no neat answer. There are many different ways of leading others and a huge variety of situations in which leadership arises. Be yourself. Listen to people. Be self aware. Play to your strengths. Value help from those around you, especially in the areas where you are less strong.  Leadership is for everyone: the newest recruits to a team, with the least experience, can still show their leadership qualities from day one in the way they conduct themselves, support their colleagues and work with their clients. Conversely, if they don’t, they won’t be entrusted with bigger leadership challenges later in their careers. 

You are now active in supporting in-house lawyers in their roles and careers.  Why do you think it is important?  

For a start in-house lawyers are doing important work.  They are also fortunate in that they get to engage with their client organisations on a wide range of work every day: operational, policy, long term strategy.  External lawyers enjoy a much narrower engagement with their clients. The point where a lawyer moves from private practice to take up an in-house role is a crucial point in the individual’s development. I have recruited, inducted and trained individuals at this point for over 30 years. I have learned that there are particular skills, competences and attributes that in-house lawyers can develop to be successful, and I enjoy helping them to explore for themselves the different ways of how they can develop. 

What do you think are the key elements in having a successful and rewarding in-house career?  

Phew! In no sort of order: see yourself as a leader in your organisation from Day One. Be ready to take on any work that comes your way, regardless of your expertise. What you then do with the work will depend on your knowledge, your skill and the support that there is around you and externally. 

See yourself not as an employment law specialist (for example) but as someone who is a specialist at being an in-house lawyer. Understand your clients’ business. Get to know your clients well personally. Give risk-based advice. Speak out. Don’t come over as negative. Encourage clients to engage with you early, even if their ideas are ill formed: you will be able to help them shape their ideas and save time in the future. And they will be more likely to come to you early at times of crisis, where you will really make your mark.

As you become more senior take your management and strategy work seriously and get involved in the work of the board and its committees. Finally, don’t neglect your own development; use help from mentors; network appropriately. Will that do?

If you hadn’t been a lawyer, what would you have chosen to do?  

I very much enjoy interviewing successful lawyers for Counsel magazine and trying to capture how they got to where they are. In another world, given a microphone, I’d love to be the host of Desert Island Discs.