From in-house lawyer to trusted advisor - an interview with Kent Dreadon

Kent-Dreadon

From in-house lawyer to trusted advisor: the importance of understanding your business

A successful in-house lawyer has influence within a business and can add more than just legal value. Kent Dreadon, previously Deputy General Counsel and Head of Legal at Telefónica UK Limited (which operates under the O2 brand in the UK) and now Group General Counsel at Ascential, talks to us about two key elements for success: a thorough understanding of the business and good communication.

 Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in New Zealand and completed a law degree and a business degree there. After two and half years working in New Zealand, I came to the UK where I worked in private practice for 7 years most of them at the old SJ Berwin, now King Wood Mallesons, in general commercial litigation.

I initially joined Telefónica on a secondment doing commercial litigation. When an opportunity arose to take on a permanent role as Head of Litigation I grabbed it. I really enjoyed the mix of technical legal work and the overlay of the business part of it. The fact that I’d done a business degree and was interested in that helped.

A key moment for me was when I was asked to get more involved in regulatory disputes. All of a sudden I was out of my comfort zone and dealing with a really complex and challenging area. I discovered that my skill in that space was to bind everyone together, make the team work effectively, and to have an overview of the strategy and key issues. I initially felt as if I was floundering but I learnt to accept that I couldn’t possibly know everything and that I had to rely on other people who were bringing their specialist expertise to bear.

Then came the opportunity to take on heading up the competition team as well. It was an interesting challenge because my background is not in that area. Again, it was more about how I could support the technical specialists in the team without standing on their toes too much or trying to pretend I was an expert.

In November 2011 I became Head of Legal and that’s broadly the role I am in now although the remit has grown over time. I’m responsible for all the legal issues and a team of around 30 lawyers. In addition, I support the GC, Ed Smith, in running the other parts of his area which extends to Regulatory and Business Assurance including internal audit, compliance and risk. The other significant part of my role is to sit in the CFO’s leadership team and help manage the wider finance and professional services directorate, which is around 400 people. I’m the CFO’s first port of call for all his and his team’s legal issues. I also help with the general management side of the directorate and that’s been a great experience.

How has having a law and a business degree shaped what you’re doing now?

I think that it has definitely helped me. My major in the business degree was strategy – this has become more relevant as I’ve gone on in my career. If as a lawyer you get the way a business works, what it’s trying to achieve, and the way the business people are thinking, then it helps your ability to communicate and deliver advice. Often you see a mismatch where you have a sound technical lawyer who’s very strong but is unable to communicate in the way that the business person wants the advice delivered. It also helps you apply your legal skills to solving the issues the business is facing. So in terms of understanding context and for communicating advice and views it has really helped me.

How do you help your team develop their mix of legal and business knowledge?

Day-to-day the team are developing a trusted relationship with directorates in the business. They are in weekly meetings where they are exposed to business issues. We also have a team meeting every 6 weeks where we present a business update and discuss key issues that have happened in the market and how the business is performing. There’s also the usual information that gets rolled out to the business through the various communications channels – all our lawyers are exposed to that. What we’ve tried to do is impart the importance of business and industry knowledge and been clear thatyou’re not going to be a brilliant in-house lawyer unless you’ve got that.

What do you look for in your team to demonstrate that they have an understanding of the business?

For me it comes back to communication. You can’t properly advise a business director unless you’re instinctively aware of the director’s key issues and motivations, how they are going to approach the issue and what the risks are to their team. You could be a brilliant technical lawyer, but what the director wants is a clear steer. They’re not interested in the detailed background, they basically want the executive summary and rely on you to get the rest right.

When you’re recruiting new lawyers, it’s important to get bright people who you know will fit into the culture of your team and the wider organisation – the business side you can develop. It’s key to know that they will be able to work with the business people.

How do you persuade a business of the value that lawyers can add?

I would be reluctant to work in an organisation that at the most senior level did not appreciate the value that a really good legal team can add. In any decent sized organisation the most senior lawyer should be on the management board in my view. I don’t believe that ‘lawyers are lawyers’ and that they shouldn’t swerve off into wider business issues. Businesses don’t really see it that way; they want the best possible people dealing with the most important issues.

There’s a real opportunity to prove that lawyers can influence key issues. But you need to build a reputation for quality so that every time somebody engages with the legal team they’re getting good service and a good result. That way you earn the right over time to tackle the really big issues.

How do you hold with the view that lawyers are there to give advice but not to make decisions?

Directors, CEOs and CFOs will always want your view. They may or may not follow your recommendation, but in my experience they generally do. You’re not making the final decision perhaps, but you’re offering up the clear route through, based on your analysis. You can’t make recommendations unless you apply the legal issues to the wider business context and then communicate them in a way that is powerful. It looks weak if you set out a range of options but aren’t clear about what you think.

Unless you’re able to understand the wider context, read the individual and the situation, and deliver the advice in a clear and succinct way, you’re never going to be brilliant. You must be able to engage with the business in a language they understand.

Read a further interview with Kent Dreadon here.


Supporting you increase your influence as a successful in-house lawyer:

  1. Practical guidance and tips for heads of legal teams on building relationships with business colleagues that the legal department reports to
  2. Be confident your legal team has strategic alignment to the business with this checklist
  3. Advice on how to help your legal team be engaged and aligned with your business’ priorities
  4. Five key indicators of whether your in-house legal team is taking a strategic approach
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