Phirak Appleton

In the spotlight: Phirak Appleton

We chat to Phirak Appleton, General Counsel of Real Estate Authority, about why she loves this role and how she is staying connected to the organisation and team.

Can you tell us about your role, what you love about it and what it is teaching you about yourself?

As General Counsel I lead the legal function, supporting our core regulatory functions, which is not dissimilar to other General counsel or Chief Legal Advisor roles, however, I am also a member of our Senior Leadership Team which is a point of difference from some other General Counsel roles. This means I am involved in a real variety of work from a pure legal advisory or litigation through to risk analysis, robust regulatory decision-making, business improvement and leading complicated projects - no two days in my role is ever the same! This variety in work is a key enjoyment feature of my role and so is the people leadership side. I really enjoy people leadership, seeing my team members grow and feel empowered to lead work and relationships across our organisation.

In terms of what my role teaches me about myself, is that, regardless of how many years I have practised or the number of workplaces I have worked, there are always opportunities to grow. I am always learning new things and I am never short of questions! I have been in this role for three and a half years and there are still rocks to lift and new information to take in.

What do you do to build and enhance the influence of the in-house legal function across the organisation?

Providing team members with a chance to be involved in cross-organisation initiatives or projects is a key way we build and enhance influence. As an in-house legal team, we have a great advantage that, in providing advice, we hear about work in different parts of REA in real time. This means we get a chance to connect dots and/or parts of the organisation. Being the connector and providing advice that supports these connections is a valuable way to increase influence - it really demonstrates understanding your clients’ needs while also anticipating what they may need. As General Counsel, I identify opportunities where the team can add value to the work of other teams and will actively raise this with other leaders. I also like to encourage my team to talk directly with parts of the organisation so they are the visible trusted advisor or problem solver.

What have been your most recent challenges as General Counsel and how did you address these?

Covid, covid, covid! As a regulator we provided Covid -19 sector guidance under stressful timeframes. In a remote environment, this was challenging with the balancing of hours but also engaging with key stakeholders across the public sector and industry. For the guidance, I made the most of my networks built over the years and professional relationships to work through the challenge of working under pressure in a remote setting. I really valued the sense of collegiality felt through the development of the guidance and the recognition that we were all working as well as we could.

Covid also meant challenges from a team perspective, maintaining good morale, and providing coaching and support in remote settings has been an ever-present challenge. I do my best to engage informally with the team and wider organisation by attending virtual quizzes and drinks. My team also uses different means to stay connected and in touch on work or non-work matters. Keeping things light where possible and making sure I am available by phone, WhatsApp, Teams or email is a big part of my ethos to stay connected in these Covid times.

What are some of the trends that you're seeing and how do you see the in-house legal profession evolving?

The first is that the in-house lawyer role is increasingly an attractive career choice for many lawyers. In-house teams can provide so much more than we would have seen 10 years ago. More and more teams provide advice across a wide range of work, such as litigation, advisory, commercial contracting, investigations and regulatory functions. In-house teams have also grown in size which means we see more options for career progression within an in-house team. This can only be good news for us in a competitive employment market.

The second is the growth in expectation and reliance on the in-house lawyer to support the delivery of core functions. As consumers are increasingly better informed and well aware of their rights, this in turn means expectations on decision makers or delivery has also increased. For the in-house profession it means the title of ‘trusted advisor’ is all the more important as in-house lawyers are asked to advise in areas that are not purely legal but about providing sound judgement and identifying risks and options for these decision-makers. In house lawyers are critical parts in the machinery of many organisations.

Finally, as an employer I see the continued drive for us to ‘walk the talk’ of flexibility in the workplace and supporting the well-being of our people. It is not enough to say we have flexible working and remind staff not to work outside business hours, we need to role model it (which I know, personally, I’m conscious of the hours!). It’s also important for us to be vocal about this at the leadership table and visibly support it across our workplaces. As in-house lawyers, we often advise senior leaders directly or are senior leaders ourselves so I see the in-house legal profession as having a real opportunity to show strong leadership in this area.