Five Things I Have Learned as an In-house Lawyer…

Almost nine years ago, I was sent on a six-week secondment from the City office of a leading national law firm, to the employment, pensions and benefits legal team at Barclays Bank plc. I had never considered a career as an in-house lawyer and my overwhelming feeling at this point, six weeks before my wedding, was anxiety over how I would make a success of this role for my firm whilst also preparing for one of the biggest days of my life! Little did I know that those weeks with Barclays would turn into three months, lead to a job offer, a career change and eight and a half years spent working as an in-house employment lawyer at two of the most recognisable brands in the UK.
So, what have I learned?
1. Relationships Matter
Of course, being technically excellent is important, but this should be a given. The single most important attribute in having a successful career in the two companies I worked in-house for was an ability to engage and build strong relationships with my clients. This wasn’t always easy – when you work as an in-house lawyer you are not the raison d’etre for the business, you are a support function and as a lawyer, even worse, you are often seen as a blocker and someone to be avoided by the very people you want to support. As such, you really have to build credibility and trust with your stakeholders. You want to be one of the first people they reach out to when an employment law issue arises, rather than the person they seek most to avoid because they fear that you are going to block their exciting new idea or chastise them for having dealt with an employee in a way that has lead to some kind of relationship breakdown. Which leads neatly on to my second lesson:
2.You have to be in it to win it
One of the key pieces of value I can add to my clients is to support them at the very start of a project or potential dispute. The moment that they are even starting to consider a restructure, or there is the first sniff that a tricky employment issue might escalate, I want them to be reaching for the phone or tapping my email address into a new email. The benefits of this are tangible – if my clients trust me enough to allow me to help them shape the strategy for dealing with the issue at hand, then it is more than likely I will be able to reward their trust by avoiding or minimising employment law issues arising down the line. This offers a significant reduction in the risk and cost of the alternative, which is to clear up the mess that has already been created when decisions have already been made and relationships have already broken down, or (heaven forfend!) not calling me in at all. As a senior and respected colleague said to me recently “if you are going to have to clear up the elephant poop, it’s preferable to have had a hand in feeding it first”.
3. There is (almost) always a way
One of the ways that I have found to help the business to trust me is to be open minded, even tapping into my creative side on occasion. My view of employment law is really very simple: There is almost always a way. Now, it may be that the ‘way’ carries legal risk, or is expensive, or both, but if you work with your business to understand their tolerance for risk, it becomes much easier to shape a strategy that is palatable from both a risk and cost perspective. The other advantage of being open minded and partnering with the business to find solutions is that when, on occasion, you have to say ‘no’, the business will trust your advice because they will know that ‘no’ is as much of a last resort for you as it is for them.
4. Speak the same language
I hate corporate speak, but I also understand that if the business speaks a certain language, the best way for me to help them understand my advice is to speak that language too. In the same way, there is no point whatsoever in me approaching a busy HR or business leader with a lengthy monologue or beautifully drafted essay of advice, which sets out the issues whilst highlighting my academic prowess and technical excellence. My advice needs to be clear, concise, and translate complicated employment law concepts into manageable and impactful soundbites. I need to help my clients to understand the issues at hand so that they can make informed decisions. It is not rocket science to understand that business leaders are extremely busy and if someone only has time to pick up on emails on their phone or five minutes to walk and talk about an issue whilst travelling between meetings, then my advice is only going to make the right impact if I can deliver it effectively under these circumstances.
5. Sitting on the fence does not win you any friends
Lawyers are cautious by nature and part of my training was to present options to my clients and let them decide on the best course of action, not least for fear of being sued for negligence if I had the temerity to venture an opinion. In-house, that approach simply doesn’t cut the mustard. In-house lawyers need to have the confidence to go one step further and tell the business what we think is the best course of action – what we would do if we were in their shoes. That doesn’t mean that your clients will not think for themselves or (unfortunately!) that they will always agree with your advice – but it does mean that you can be sure you have used your expertise in the most effective way to support your clients.
What next
It may seem strange, having just given you my top five lessons for success as an in-house lawyer, to break the news that I have left the last eight and a half years of my corporate career behind me to go back to the world of private practice. However, for me it’s the natural next step – having found the right firm to support me in my aspiration to provide an in-house style service to clients who don’t want or need a full time in-house employment lawyer. I’m really excited about using my years of experience to help other companies deal with their employment law issues in the best way possible.
If you think I could help you, please get in touch.
Sarah Wilder started at MPM Legal on July 4th 2016.