The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective In-house Lawyers

14 September 2016  |  Admin


THE INSIDE JOB: WORKING AS AN IN-HOUSE LAWYER / Patrick AmbroseThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a best-selling book written by Stephen Covey that focuses on personal effectiveness. The central tenet of the book is that a person’s character is a collection of habits relating to their knowledge, skill and desire, which has a powerful impact on their ability to operate independently and in co-operation with others.

An in-house lawyer needs to develop many skills, including a thorough knowledge of the law as it relates to the business and an ability to build relationships. However, there are specific habits that in-house lawyers can adopt that maximise personal effectiveness and, consequently, their overall value to the organisation.

Habit 1: Begin with the business goal in mind

A genuine understanding of the business should be at the heart of everything the in-house lawyer does. All in-house lawyers should appreciate how important it is to understand the commercial basics of the business, such as what it does, how it makes money, and the business environment in which the organisation operates. However, a truly effective in-house lawyer will take the time to sit with staff-members of the business to gain a solid grasp of the operational and technical details of what the organisation does, as this depth of understanding brings an heightened awareness of the practical impact of legal matters upon the business, particularly in a contractual negotiation or where litigation arises.

Knowing the key issues and priorities enables the in-house lawyer to closely align the support she or he provides with these business needs and to give focused advice that identifies, and overcomes, potential obstacles to attaining business goals. For this reason, highly-effective in-house lawyers are not viewed within the organisation simply as legal advisors, but as trusted problem-solvers.

Habit 2: Seek first to understand, then to be understood

In many respects, this is the key habit that any in-house lawyer should develop in respect of interpersonal relationships. Effective listening is much more than simply echoing what the other person has said in the context of your own background and experience; it means putting yourself into the other person’s shoes and listening with empathy. A good working understanding of terminology used by the business also will make communication easier and ensure that key concepts are not lost.

This habit further recognises that, once you have truly listened, you then must be able to communicate your advice to the business in a language that decision-makers and operational managers understand. At a fundamental level, this means avoiding legal jargon and concepts and distilling your advice into plain English. Your advice must be insightful, relevant and as succinct as possible to express clearly what the business needs to understand about the legal issue, how it will impact the business and the proposed course of action.

Habit 3: Be organised and prioritise

In recent years, most in-house lawyers have noted a marked increase in their workload as a result of budget restrictions that prevent outsourcing, fewer in-house lawyers employed in the team or the increased legal and regulatory environment. Meeting these demands can feel like an exercise in spinning plates and, if not managed properly, can negatively impact the quality and timeliness of your work product no matter how many hours you put in.

Highly-effective in-house lawyers have excellent project and time management skills. Staying up-to-date with legal and regulatory developments, as well as the organisation’s short, medium and long-term strategy, allows the in-house lawyer to allocate their time and resources available accordingly, and it also enables them to notify other parts of the business that their availability will be limited at certain times. Work-in-progress must be prioritised in accordance with how urgent it is for the business or how big an impact it will have and thus knowing when to outsource, delegate, and even push back on requests for legal advice are all invaluable skills in managing workload. Ultimately, this ability to set realistic delivery expectations and to stick to them adds significantly to the in-house lawyer’s credibility within the business.

Habit 4: Keep calm and carry on

Highly-effective in-house lawyers exhibit low excitability, and organisations look with confidence to in-house lawyers where they observe this ability to take a step back and gather all of the facts before delivering measured and balanced guidance. By being calm under pressure, highly-effective in-house lawyers are adept at thinking on their feet where necessary and always can find the space to consider, not just the legal, but also the ethical and reputational ramifications of proposed business actions.

This habit is particularly important where the organisation is faced with an unforeseen or potential crisis. Although the nature of what constitutes a crisis is ever-changing, given their attention to detail and innate caution the in-house lawyer can play a key role in managing a crisis by preparing and planning for it. Knowing in advance the procedures to be followed – for example, in the event of a ‘dawn raid’ by regulatory authorities – will greatly mitigate the uncertainty for the business when unexpected events occur.

Habit 5: Embrace the unknown

Business moves quickly and legal queries can arise both from an organisation’s day-to-day activities and in the context of the constantly-evolving legal and regulatory environment it operates in. As a result, in-house lawyers do not always have as much time to review information as they would like, and often are asked to provide ‘on-the-spot’ legal advice based on the information available at that time. Lawyers, however, are inherently cautious and the desire to give legal advice based on a complete set of facts often can conflict with the need for rapid decision-making. When faced with the unknown, lawyers may be tempted to function simply as naysayers until the legal position is certain, or the facts more apparent. However, highly-effective in-house lawyers are comfortable with uncertainty and have learned to impart advice based on incomplete information. By setting out the risks of proposed solutions for assessment by the business, they go beyond simply identifying legal issues and they can add real value to the organisation by finding creative solutions that move the business forward.

Habit 6: Master the ‘soft’ skills

Just as a private practitioner needs strong interpersonal skills in developing client relationships, an in-house lawyer requires strong interpersonal skills when dealing with key internal and external stakeholders. There needs to be personal engagement with the business if the in-house lawyer is to assess how to contribute to the business most effectively and, most importantly, to ensure that the views of the legal department are respected and reflected in business decisions.

Highly-effective in-house lawyers have keen influencing skills and will avoid hostile, confrontational tactics, such as volume and anger, in favour of persuasion through reasoning. They listen to, and have empathy with, the concerns of the business and, where possible, seek to strike a negotiated balance between the objectives of the business and the applicable legal requirements. Through a combination of these skills, they exude strong personal and professional confidence, and project a sense of command that puts those who rely upon their legal advice at ease.

Habit 7: Know when to stop to think, and when to act

As organisational budgets have reduced and more legal work is kept in-house, the burden on in-house legal resources has increased. But ‘value’ is not achieved by just being busy and it is important for in-house lawyers to continuously reflect on how their time and effort is being used to ensure that it is properly aligned with the demands of the business. The questions you should be asking include: Why do we do this, and can we do this better? What work is adding real value to move the business forward, and what work should be done differently?

At the same time, changes in the law or changes in the organisation’s strategy can bring risks and opportunities to the business. In-house lawyers can identify these legal issues as they first appear on the horizon and therefore can play a significant role in the formulation of the organisation’s strategy. While some in-house lawyers will wait to receive specific instructions or legal advice requests, highly-effective in-house lawyers thrive on the thrill of these challenges, adopting a pro-active approach by communicating them early to decision-makers and working towards a business-orientated solution. 

Extracted from THE INSIDE JOB: WORKING AS AN IN-HOUSE LAWYER by Patrick Ambrose