Webinar report: Major challenges facing in-house lawyers today

Back in April we held our legal leaders webinar in collaboration with Thomson Reuters.


Rebecca Cater on 06/06/24

It’s undisputed that in-house lawyers face a wide range of challenges in the current economic and geopolitical climate. But which demands are the most common, how do they differ between the public and private sectors – and how are in-house legal leaders tackling them?

To find out, two senior in-house lawyers spoke openly about their roles to Anthony Inglese and Paul Bentall for webinar number two in our 2024 series in partnership with Thomson Reuters. 

‘A great leader is one who can leave the room without anything changing’
Michael Jennings

Michael Jennings is Director – Legal Services Division at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Michael’s distinguished career in the public sector has also seen him hold senior legal roles at the Crown Prosecution Service, the Attorney General’s office, the Government Legal Department and the UK Home Office. He joined the HSE in January 2023 and leads a team of 50 lawyers, paralegals and support staff.

‘Make sure you and your team are focusing on the most important things’
Alex O’Connell

Alex O’Connell is General Counsel and Company Secretary at the tonics, drink and mixers business, Fever-Tree. A one-time professional fencer, Alex spent seven years with the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer during which time he took on an eight-month secondment at mining giant, Rio Tinto. With a feel for in-house life thus established, Alex became Senior Legal Counsel at Budweiser Brewing Group in 2020. He joined Fever-Tree in October 2021.

Public sector in-house legal challenges – Michael Jennings


With the gulf between the salaries on offer at public sector institutions and those at private legal practices, it’s no secret that recruiting is a challenge for the public sector.

But delve a little deeper and you’ll discover that things aren’t so cut and dried. Sure, the private sector salaries are unequalled anywhere in the profession, but the public sector attracts lawyers for many reasons.

Firstly, the nature of much of the work is a big pull factor. In recent years, for example, Covid-19, Brexit and international conflicts have put lawyers at centre of world affairs. And with those in the public sector having the opportunity to get involved in such projects early in their careers, the work provides a great sense of satisfaction.

Work/life balance is also something that the public sector actively optimises. Although it’s not unheard of for lawyers at government departments to burn the midnight oil from time to time, it’s not part of the professional routine expected of many private practice lawyers.

Career progression

For lawyers in the public sector, taking on a senior management or leadership role often means letting go of the nitty gritty of legal advice and advocacy. This is worth bearing in mind if you love the hands-on side of being in an-house lawyer, yet also want to progress your career. That said, excellent training is available in the public sector for lawyers looking to advance.

Working relationships

In the public sector, much legal work involves advising on - and developing - new legislation or implementing existing law. In either case, this means working closely with policy officials and politicians.

It pays to be aware of some the factors that motivate these stakeholders. Their decisions will be subject to greater public scrutiny than those made in the private sector and politicians will likely have one eye on the effects of their decisions on a) their party’s electoral chances and b) their own career prospects. Ministers too are under enormous pressure – both external and internal – to justify their recommendations and decisions.

So overall, an in-house career in the public sector can be highly exciting and rewarding with great work/life balance and career prospects - as many returnees from the private sector can testify to.

Private sector in-house challenges – Alex O’Connell


For many in-house teams, workload is a key challenge. 
Especially in growing businesses, the volume of work often increases faster than the size of the legal team grows. Compounding this is the universal truth that the quicker you work, the quicker the corporate wheel turns – thus creating more work.

All of which means that devising strategies to prioritise work is a key part of the in-house legal leader’s role.

And this means looking not just at your current workload – but what’s also in the pipeline. 
This could include new regulation, including legislation specific to your organisation’s industry sector or more general changes in areas such as employment law or environmental social and governance policy. Bear in mind too that final legislation frequently ends up looking quite different to what is originally proposed, which could affect how you plan your resources.

Also, get familiar with your organisation’s long term business strategy. Any big plans, such as a move into a new market sector or geography, or an acquisition, will swell the legal team’s inbox.

With a good picture of what’s coming, the next step is to speak with senior colleagues to assess who in your organisation will be most affected. What impact, for example will evolving legislation and/or the organisation’s business plan have on:

  • Finance;
  • HR;
  • Procurement;
  • Marketing; and
  • The supply chain?

From here you can plot your legal strategy and assess what’s necessary vs what’s achievable. You’ll be able to see what you can and cannot accomplish in-house, and form a view on what work may best placed with external counsel, other teams internally etc.

You’ll almost certainly have to decide what work must be done to an excellent standard and for which work good enough will suffice. There may be some tasks that, as a small legal team with limited resources, you cannot commit to completing at all. This is not always a comfortable admission but can be crucial to enabling you and your team to tackle the big ticket items.

To watch the recording click here.

Webinar three of this series looks at The Importance of personal effectiveness as an in-house lawyer. It’s at 2.00pm on 16 October and we look forward to welcoming you then.

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