The Future of In-house Legal

How can in-house lawyers be future-fit?

Our minds have turned to the future and the Juno Legal team have been privileged to host three learning events in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch exploring “The Future of In-House Legal”. How might this significant and growing part of the legal profession look in 5, 10 and even 20 years’ time? Thanks to all our speakers, clients and community who joined us and contributed to the lively discussions.

There were so many great ideas shared that we have split the events summary into two parts. This article focuses on what existing and new skills and contributions our organisations are asking from in-house counsel and next month’s article focuses on what in-house lawyers themselves are asking from their organisations and how in-house legal roles might look like in future.

How are in-house lawyers being asked to show up and what new skills are they needing to evolve? Also, how can in-house lawyers place their advice in context and how can they keep up with fast-flowing changes? We saw through the pandemic in the public sector, lawyers were at the table helping to build the model in real-time, not advising post-decision. This real-time focus is also seen in agile and fast-moving corporates where in-house legal is embedded in commercial discussions and advises alongside rather than providing asynchronous input. The dial is moving to get in-house legal advice embedded in project and transaction thinking and formation and our speakers all supported this development.

Clients are seeking advice that is fast, briefer and more agile. They want practical, short legal advice. Clients just need the answer, not the detail, although the deeper thinking to back the answer up should still be done. In-house legal needs to be future-fit. The evolving skills being sought include understanding Te Ao Māori and application of Te Tiriti, financial literacy, bravery to have courageous conversations, resilience, curiosity, growth mindset and the ability to influence and persuade.

Speakers told the audience to be prepared for sudden big shifts where law and courts will follow society and tikanga. We need to bring not just our legal voices but commercial and strategic voices through listening and empathy. In-house lawyers play a key role as challengers by asking good questions. This can be seen across organisations as a vital “connect the dot function”. The ability to identify, anticipate, evaluate, and mitigate risk is key but lawyers also must see the upside. This means risk balances opportunity so mitigating risk balances leveraging opportunity. In-house legal can then help their organisation to push the opportunity harder within legal and ethical constraints.

There was strong encouragement to get the legal team out into the business. For example, to build in privacy by design by having a lawyer as part of agile teams. One great phrase we heard was that an in-house lawyer is less a “brain on a stick” than a private practice lawyer and needs a full complement of skills of collaboration, relationship building and strong communications.

How our speakers encouraged in-house counsel to show up:

  • Be open, engaging and enthusiastic;
  • Don’t equivocate. Execute judgement and back yourself;
  • Say it, ask it, do it;
  • You can make mistakes but fail fast;
  • Give comfort to others that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them;
  • Speak truth to power;
  • Understand and internalise risk e.g. there is no appetite for risk in the privacy space but more appetite in the innovation space;
  • Build the trust and confidence first before trying to persuade;
  • Encourage younger lawyers to sit on business leadership teams to understand how good leadership works;
  • Upskill the whole company and constantly look for ways to capture knowledge.