Lawyers

What makes a good in-house lawyer?

Four external lawyers tell us their perspectives on what makes a good in-house lawyer. (From left to right) Fionnghuala Cuncannon, Hayden Wilson, Amy Ryburn and Tim Sherman, kindly share their views.

Fionnghuala Cuncannon, Partner at Meredith Connell

What makes a good in-house lawyer from your perspective?

Looking from the outside in, it seems to me that good in-house counsel do two things:

  • They’re good at applying the 80/20 rule. What I mean by that is for 80% of issues they’re helping their organisation by applying what I call legal common sense - recognising that most risks (legal, reputational etc) can be addressed by applying first principles, having good comms, and following a sensible process. For the 20%, they’re understanding their organisation’s risk tolerance and making sure that issues are identified and escalated in accordance with it. 
  • They build strong internal relationships so have a good understanding of what drives the organisation and where the real risks are likely to arise. This means they’re better at applying the 80/20 rule because colleagues come to them early and informally so they can help manage risk through low key involvement at an early stage. 

How do you partner with in-house lawyers and build collaboration?

Much of my work is done with in-house counsel and it makes my job much easier because we speak the same language. So from my perspective, in-house counsel are an invaluable interface to understanding what the client is seeking to achieve and for me to communicate well too. So I hope that I build strong relationships based on recognising and respecting how our roles and skills are complementary. How this plays out for any particular instruction depends on the context. For example, sometimes in-house counsel need me to clearly be the external voice, other times we’re simply all mucking in together to work an issue through. 

What changes/trends do you see in the in-house legal profession?

I think the critical role of in-house lawyers is reflected in ongoing growth as more organisations understand their significant value add and become increasingly sophisticated in how they recruit really high calibre candidates for particular roles. I’m also seeing increasing specialisation within that growth as in-house counsel are embedded in or attached to particular units/functions. I think that enables even earlier application of what I call legal common sense and, while it may be difficult to measure the impact of that because we all undervalue avoided costs, that’s a very good thing. 

 


Hayden Wilson, Chair & Partner at Dentons Kensington Swan

What makes a good in-house lawyer from your perspective?

From an ‘out-house’ perspective, the things that make a great in-house lawyer are the same things that likely make them hugely valuable to their organisation. They have a combination of broad legal experience (now with also some areas of deep specialty), an understanding of the business’ strategic goals and risk appetite coupled with the ability to communicate those objectives to us when we work with them. The best in-house lawyers have the confidence of the business, can appreciate and direct us to where we can best add value and can navigate internal governance processes and stakeholder expectations in a way out-house lawyers simply cannot.

How do you partner with in-house lawyers and build collaboration?

Collaboration and partnering is all built on trust. The best in-house lawyers have the legal expertise to be able to identify the right people to work with. Communication is key - we try to make that easier by communicating in a timely, open and honest way and by delivering what we have been asked to do in the way they want to get it. The best in-house lawyers are able to be completely open with us about what they need, how they need it and what our role is. We know that in-house lawyers have to manage the expectations of people in the business, so we never want to let them down. The best in-house lawyers create true partnerships with their external teams so we can operate as a seamless extension of the in-house team. They tell us what they need to make the business successful, and what we can do to help them be successful - the more we understand about the business needs, the more we can ensure our advice both meets the business objectives and is presented in the most useful format for implementation and understanding by the business.

What changes/trends do you see in the in-house legal profession?

Clearly one of the key trends is the expansion of the in-house bar. Tied in with this is an increasing permeability of in-house and out-house with professionals in both aspects understanding the value of the other in developing a fully rounded professional. Collaboration technology and sophisticated legal ops approaches are increasingly common and will continue to spread.

 


Amy Ryburn, Partner at Buddle Findlay

What makes a good in-house lawyer from your perspective?

An in-depth understanding of the organisation they work for combined with an excellent ability to identify and communicate the relevant context (not too much, too little but just the right information) which the external advisors won't know and can't readily obtain. I appreciate this takes time the in house lawyer may not always have but, as an external advisor, this makes a massive difference to whether I can do my best job in the most timely and cost-efficient manner. It also enables the in-house lawyer to make the right call about the extent to which they should be involved in the matter for their organisation's greatest benefit. There may be times when it is most effective to let us work with a large degree of autonomy (e.g. where we offer specialist expertise or much needed capacity) - in other situations we simply won't be able to provide an output that the business really needs in a timely manner without significant guidance from in-house counsel. Making the right call on this can be a difficult balancing act but it makes all the difference.

How do you partner with in-house lawyers and build collaboration?

I imagine it's not for everyone, but I actually like to try to catch up with in house lawyers I work with reasonably regularly just to chat and have a coffee (although I don't actually drink coffee) - without any specific agenda item or items in mind. I think it helps to have met a person face to face (at least initially) and to understand a bit about what is important to them – both at work and at home. In my experience, the best collaboration happens when in-house and external lawyers working together can be really frank with each other in a context where they trust and like each other. That kind of relationship can be difficult to build without having some sort of personal connection. 

What changes/trends do you see in the in-house legal profession?

I don't think it is a particularly new trend, but every year I seem to meet more and more in-house lawyers who have roles which require them to provide commercial and strategic advice (and sometimes lead commercial and strategic discussions) alongside providing legal advice. Of course external lawyers do this too (or at least we seek to ensure that legal advice is both commercial and strategic) but it seems to me that there are a lot of in-house lawyers out there who, by virtue of their detailed understanding of the organisations they work for, have to take on multiple roles and provide a really wide range of advice to their organisation in a very integrated and seamless way. This takes a great deal of skill and dedication and can be really impressive to watch. 

It also seems to me that there seems to be an increasing need for really senior or expert legal advice on short timeframes. A lot of the work that in the past might have provided excellent training opportunities for junior lawyers just doesn't seem to exist to the same extent (either because that work has been automated, is no longer there, or perhaps because work needs to be done in timeframes which don't leave room for training and potential re-work). I think this presents a real challenge for both internal and external counsel on how we can best train and develop those who will come after us. I'm not sure what the answer is (as there is unlikely to be any silver bullet) but it would be great to see whether more collaboration between in-house and external counsel in this area could make a real difference.

 


Tim Sherman, Partner at Chapman Tripp

What makes a good in-house lawyer from your perspective?

The same things that make a good lawyer generally: a creative, problem-solving mindset, a drive to keep on learning and growing, good listening skills, empathy, and a willingness not only to question and challenge but also to take ownership.  The most effective in-house lawyers I know have all these in spades.  If we’re talking about things that make a difference specifically to external lawyers, I’d say we do our best work when our in-house clients treat us as “part of the team”, and are intentional about what role they want us to play. 

How do you partner with in-house lawyers and build collaboration?

Often it’s about adapting to each individual’s style. Different in-house lawyers want different things from their externals. Sometimes I won’t be the best fit, but then I’ll try to involve other colleagues who might be.

Also, it helps to remember our in-house counterparts are not only clients but colleagues as well. As an external lawyer there can be pressure to act like you have all the answers all the time.  In the wrong light, this can come off as patronising, and kills collaboration pretty quickly. I’ve certainly made that kind of mistake in years gone by. Private practice is more fun once you realise you’re allowed to learn from your in-house clients (and even your counterparts sitting across the table), not only lawyers within your firm. That doesn’t mean externals taking any less accountability for their work – just that there’s more than one way to get to an answer.

What changes/trends do you see in the in-house legal profession?

Flexible working arrangements are a lot more common post-COVID, for internals and externals alike. This can be a challenge when working on demanding transactions, but it can also bring teamwork and internal/external collaboration to the fore. I can think of more than a few recent examples where internal and external lawyers have tag-teamed very effectively to accommodate varying schedules, parenting duties etc.

Also, legal tech and legal ops continue to gain momentum. There is lots of (healthy) experimentation going on, but as a profession we should also be talking about how to align more around common standards and practices, and how to work more closely with (and recognise the contributions of) other disciplines.