6 keys ways to make a more telling contribution as an in-house lawyer

Paul Gilbert, LBC Wise CounselThe 20th LBCambridge residential skills development programme for in-house lawyers – established in 2006 by LBC Wise Counsel - recently took place at Queen’s College, Cambridge.

The traditional opening keynote session on the first full day is designed around themes which the delegates identify as their most pressing issues.

Delegates are asked what is “top of mind” and then ideas are discussed, debated and distilled into the most pertinent themes, which were identified as:

  1. How should we measure and demonstrate our value?
  2. How do we influence to get a place at the table and permission to change things?
  3. How can we have career development in flat structures or small teams?
  4. How can we manage the expectation to do more with less?
  5. What is the personal transition to being a successful in-house lawyer?
  6. How should we step beyond the day-to-day and make a more telling contribution?

In this analysis, Paul Gilbert, Chief Executive, LBC Wise Counsel, explores these theme in more detail reflecting the presentation made to delegates at the LBCambridge programme.

1) How should we measure and demonstrate our value?

The mistake usually made is to think that metrics and measures can exist outside of a clear and specific purpose that is for your team and your business. It is as if there are generic measures of value that have universal application – a sort of Holy Grail of value measures.

Too often therefore lawyers hope that some form of benchmarking will do this and will reveal something useful. However my view is that benchmarking, for example, is at best a hindsight view of lowest common denominator indicators. It is therefore a mistake to invest in benchmarking to show value. True value requires three things:

  • An agreed strategy to deliver a particular result
  • A known baseline to measure from
  • An identified outcome from which to measure to

In the end, frankly, it is as simple as that. Once a purpose is identified then the measures to help show that this purpose has been fulfilled ought to be straightforward.

2) How do we influence to get a place at the table and permission to change things?

The idea that we should aspire to be trusted advisors and through this mystical transformation we become influential is one of the biggest lies we propagate about working in-house. Influence is not built on such a spurious foundation as “trusted advisor”, but on rock solid, real achievements that people can see and feel have made a difference.

In the end asserting value or demanding involvement is only likely to confirm the view that one might have little to offer. So focus on achievement (see 1 above!). It is why having a clear sense of purpose is so vital and keeping commitments in pursuit of your purpose is the currency of value and therefore of influence as well. In short, you must say what you are doing, then do it and then show that it made the difference you promised. I am convinced it is only then that you will start to have the influence you need.

3) How can we have career development in flat structures or small teams?

Of course you can, but only if one is not stuck in a traditional paradigm that equates years served with status and value. If career development involves reading more widely, volunteering (in and outside of employment), leading a project, chairing a meeting, writing an article, learning a new skill, mentoring a junior colleague and building internal and external networks, then one can have all the career development opportunity one could wish for.

It is important to be realistic as well though. Most General Counsel cannot promise promotions and new roles – great if they come along, but rarely they will be predictable. Three things therefore follow:

  • You may have to leave at some point.
  • If you might leave, make sure your CV shows progression, contribution and development.
  • While you stay, your flat structure is not an impediment to progression, but a chance to learn how to lead and influence in a subordinate role. This one skill of subordinate leadership, expertly learned, will be your most sustaining asset in any new role you subsequently secure.

Work in the best interests of your team and your business and you are almost certainly be working in the best interest of your career as well.

4) How can we manage the expectation to do more with less?

You can’t, so please do not try. “More for less” is a false construct that is easy to say, impossible to implement and designed to make us seek what we should know is pointless. We can do less with less.

If we could actually do more with less, we were failing before. Less with less is honest and imperative. It forces a conversation about what is more important and what is less important. It will encourage realism and priority. It will show alignment and properly manages expectation. To pretend to do something that defies the law of physics is to set yourself up to fail. It is a faux heroic, vacuous and ultimately destructive cycle of trying to please people for its own sake. Define your purpose with the resources you have not with the resources you need. Hope is not a strategy.

5) What is the personal transition to being a successful in-house lawyer?

Three things are essential:

  • Have a clear sense of purpose for your contribution
  • Learn to say “no” – not for its own sake, but for when the activity does not help you achieve your purpose.
  • Respect your time so that others may learn to respect your time as well. You are not there to be some sort of “Time Lord” you have so many hours in the day and you need to make them count.

Within these three points one can find the reasons people are successful and the reasons they fail. The fact it is easy to say however does not make it easy to do. My advice is to reflect what it means for you and plan accordingly. The other five points in his report should inform your thinking as well.

6) How should we step beyond the day-to-day and make a more telling contribution?

If your purpose is not delivering a telling contribution, you need to change your purpose. Every in-house lawyer has some work that can be described as routine and probably relatively low risk. This is not a bad thing, but it does need to be well managed. Routine work, because it is predictable and stable, lends itself to better process and institutionalising the know-how through training, templates and policy.

Your challenge therefore is to ensure that this “day job” activity is beautifully well managed to reduce the time you need to spend on it yourself. The time you free up as a result you can redeploy to make your more telling contribution (as long as it reflects your purpose).

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