The value of good legal skills for in-house lawyers

Don't forget the basics

Paul Bentall on 16/04/18

The scope of in-house legal roles has increased over the last couple of decades to the extent that in-house counsel now play, and are expected to play, a more proactive and influential role in their organisations. 

This is down to a combination of factors, including increasing regulation in some sectors and increasing focus on compliance, risk and reputation just about everywhere. Additionally, successive generations of in-house lawyers have demonstrated that their legal skills and training can bring benefits beyond transactional work and dealing with legal problems after they arise.

In-house lawyers have had to up their game by increasing their business acumen and by losing any attachment they may have had to inaccessible legalese and outdated communication styles.

Yet it remains the case that lawyers are employed for in-house roles primarily because of their legal skills. This article looks at (some) of these skills and considers why they are valuable and deserve to be built on and developed over the course of a career. 

The Starting Point

Legal training and education provides newly qualified lawyers with a specific and identifiable skill-set. Not all of these skills are peculiar to lawyers, but in combination they represent a strong basis for a career in the law and in non-legal roles.

So what are they? A useful starting point is found in the standards set out by legal regulators such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in stipulating the skills and behaviours required of lawyers on qualification and which need to be developed over time.

For example, the SRA’s competence statement sets out expected skills and behaviours in four areas:

  • Ethics, professionalism and judgement
  • Technical legal practice 
  • Working with other people, and
  • Managing themselves and their own work.

The statement is generic and is supplemented by a threshold standard and a statement of legal knowledge setting out the required level for newly qualified solicitors.

Against this background, here are six key legal skills that it’s important for in-house lawyers to have and develop.

1. Critical thinking and good judgement

Lawyers need to analyse information, exercise good judgement and reach reasoned decisions. In-house counsel know that they sometimes get incomplete information. Knowing what’s missing and who to get answers from is vital. But the lawyer’s training in being able to analyse complex information and spot gaps and risks is a really valuable one.
Good judgement can be exercised in different ways but developing good antennae for understanding what you’re being asked and why can help re-frame the discussion (where appropriate) and perhaps avoid any bear traps. This is helped greatly by knowledge of the organisation and by working closely with non-lawyer colleagues so that you understand what’s important and where risks and difficulties lie. While the lawyer wants to be accessible and accommodating, good judgement also means learning when to say ‘No’ and to stick to your position.

A reasoned view or decision will be expected even if it’s not a written one. But your ability to construct a reasoned position will be valued by your colleagues, even if your advice is not always what they want to hear. Lawyers have excellent analytical skills and building on these to present clearly and authoritatively to get attention is a really useful skill.  

2. Writing well

Lawyers need good drafting skills and many in-house lawyers apply these in drafting contracts, procedural rules etc. Many lawyers also need to draft reports and advice where it’s important to capture the attention of the reader(s) and get the points across. Business colleagues won’t want to wade through paragraphs of legal reasoning to get to the point and lengthy written advice will often be the exception. But it’s important to set out clearly what the key issues are together with risks and solutions. Useful techniques include:-

  • executive summaries,
  • up front options, advice and solutions, 
  • headings,
  • information set out in a non-narrative format, where appropriate
  • relegating other (necessary) information to supplementary sections and appendices, and
  • plain English.

3. Speaking well

Being able to make a clear, coherent, logical case is a great skill as often the in-house lawyer will be called upon for their views other than in writing. Seeking clearly and authoritatively on a topic requires you to know your subject and to have constructed a coherent, logical argument before you deliver it. As ever, research and thoroughness pays dividends. 
It also often helps to keep it simple. The issues may be complex but your audience is likely to be interested in the big themes, options and solutions, so focus on those. While you will understand the legal complexities at play, don’t expect your audience to. Better to keep these for a written follow up, if necessary. 

Good communication also encompasses being a good listener. Using active listening techniques such as probing and building rapport can not only help you get to the heart of the issue more quickly but may also earn you a reputation as someone worth consulting.

The ability to write and speak well and communicate effectively is important in any organisation. Lawyers have a great start but these skills are well worth developing.   

4. Being prompt, accurate, well-researched and solutions-focused

Clients often need quick answers and solutions, which can be frustrating if the legal issues are complex. As well as working effectively to respond there are two techniques that can help here:-

  • Manage expectations. If your client wants the answer tomorrow but that’s clearly unrealistic, you’ll need to negotiate. If the client is the CEO that might be trickier but you need to explain and be resilient. Ultimately, it’s better to deliver to an agreed timetable than promise the earth and deliver late.
  • Ease off on perfection. Lawyers want to get it right and cover all the angles. But it may be unrealistic and even unnecessary. Clarifying what’s needed when, and in what format, may mean that a quick, early view (suitably caveated) is enough, perhaps with a more considered advice to follow.       

Accuracy requires a detailed understanding of the relevant law. The client may not need all the legal detail but you’ll need to know it. Accuracy relies on good research and you may need to do your own - easier with the availability of online tools. And the collective knowledge of the legal team can be invaluable, which is why in-house teams look to share knowledge as effectively as they can. 
Finally, solutions based advice is a given. You may not be able to suggest a single, straightforward solution but it’s important to set out the options and suggest a way forward, wherever possible.    

5. Persuading, influencing and being resilient

Being able to persuade others is an important skill for lawyers. You may need to regularly convince others why a particular step or course of action is advisable, or not. To persuade you need to be credible, meaning that your argument needs to be well-researched and well-presented. You also need to be confident and authoritative – meaning on top of the issues but flexible enough to take on board different or opposing views. 

Influencing others goes beyond persuading. This is more about style and conduct. Someone who is known for their calm, assured, logical approach to dealing with problems can be highly influential, particularly where they ensure that certain issues such as compliance, ethics and fairness are also part of the conversation. The lawyer’s ability to focus on key issues and bring the discussion ‘back on track’ is a valuable one. 

Being resilient rather goes with the territory for an in-house lawyer. Working closely with clients means that the lawyer is regularly consulted for their views, often on an informal basis. Your advice may not always be welcomed and you may get push back. Clearly it’s important to listen and be flexible where appropriate, but you may also need to stand your ground and resist suggestions that you’ve got it wrong or are being too pedantic or ‘lawyerly’. And if the issues are important, the lawyer needs to be confident in their ability to escalate matters. Ultimately, the lawyer acts for the organisation and not for individuals. Particularly where those individuals are senior, disagreements can be tough and the lawyer needs to be resilient and have a strong support network in place.

6. Team working and collaboration

Organisations get things done via people working in formal or informal teams, whether it’s the board, board committees, the senior management team, business departments, business units or project teams. In-house lawyers get used to working closely with their non-lawyer colleagues and being part of (or perhaps leading) cross business project teams. 

Consequently, lawyers have to be good team players. But while the advantages of being collaborative are easily seen, it’s not always as easy as it appears. 

Others may see problems and solutions very differently from you and may even become frustrated at (what they see as) your lawyerly approach. Consequently, it’s important to communicate your views clearly, avoiding legalese. You also need to be adaptable, as your approach may not always be the best one. As noted, you also need to be resilient as the pressure to get things done and produce results may make you feel that legal issues and risks have not been properly identified or resolved. In this case you need to be persistent so that your points are made and heard. 

Teams have their own dynamics and an appreciation of how they operate and succeed is very useful. As you might expect, structure and leadership are important factors and legal skills can be a useful part of helping teams to succeed - for example, by ensuring that there’s clarity around objectives, gateways and outcomes.

Take Aways

Acquiring legal skills involves more than learning about what the law is and how it’s made and developed. Lawyers need a range of skills to be effective in an in-house environment. In this article we’ve highlighted some of the most important. There will be others and it’s also important to stress that lawyers are expected to exhibit a range of behaviours in carrying out their professional roles – acting fairly and with integrity and respecting diversity, for example.

The skills highlighted here are learnt and developed over the course of a career, and in different ways - on the job, in interactive training, and in non-work environments. Remember also the value of coaching and mentoring programmes.
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