The expert view: General Counsels share their top tips for career success

The LexisNexis Aspire networking and professional group met on Wednesday 28th November 2018 for a Q&A panel session with:

  • Joanne Wright, Operations Director & Legal Counsel at Carriera Limited
  • Chris Fowler, General Counsel BT Technology & Transformation at BT
  • Perry Noble, Non-Executive Director, Long Harbour Investments
  • Denise Jagger, Former ADSA GC, Partner Eversheds Sutherland LLP and Portfolio Non-Executive Director.

They shared sage advice from their personal experiences and top tips to help junior in-house lawyers shape a successful career. 

Q: When under pressure, how do I best manage senior stakeholders demanding quick answers?

A: Chris advised the group that the key is to put the business first (rather than the law), and to make any answer relevant. Rather that starting with the legal position, it might be helpful to first identify the precise problem, and offer a solution.

In-house lawyers need to learn to be quick and succinct, and their communications must be relevant and meaningful if they are going to successfully engage senior stakeholders. Humour can be a useful tool, if deployed appropriately.

Q: What messages should I be articulating in my CV?

A: Joanne provided three factors to consider:

  1. What’s your proposition, personal brand or unique selling point? Beyond that, you’re only as good as the information you provide, so sometimes you might need to reach out and start a conversation to communicate things that won’t be in your CV (eg if you are seeking to change sector.
  2. Do your due diligence on your target audience – make sure you understand the organisation and role you’re applying for, and if possible, identify the individuals you should be targeting. Link this to your proposition.
  3. Use your network to get your CV in front of the right people – there are lots of different platforms and wider connections that are available to you, so don’t rely on responding to individual ads.

Joanne indicated that a good rule of thumb for developing your CV is that if you have nothing new to add every six months, you may be in the wrong job.

Q: How to transition between private practice and in-house

Denise trained in private practice before moving in-house, and is now back in private practice in a non-fee earning role. She gained valuable experience from her time in the retail industry, which is very customer focused, and believes that law firms are not sufficiently client-centric.

She notes that the appeal of traditional law firms for aspiring and junior lawyers is a clear and defined clear path, which does not apply in house where there is no structural training (although this may be starting to change). During her time in-house, Denise would generally recruit lawyers from private practice at about two years PQE, as the more structured training provided in law firms meant she had a good sense of what to expect from lawyers of that level.

In contrast to private practice where several individuals can progress to partnership, in-house, there is only one General Counsel in each company, so Denise warned that opportunities for promotion are more restricted. To progress, she suggests that you should look at alternative routes such as risk and compliance, or more business focused positions.

Q: Can you spot future in-house stars, and what characteristics do they exhibit?

Denise said that courage and curiosity are the two most important things for in-house lawyers. Courage in terms of having the confidence to apply themselves to roles beyond the strictly legal (which is often lacking in in-house lawyers), and curiosity about the wider business and commercial aspects of their role.

She advised the group to look at the following valuable resources: 

LexisNexis Competency Framework - Step by step guide to facilitate personal development by showing the competencies needed to progress to the next level in your career

Best Practice Framework for In-House Training Contracts -  a guide developed by the Aspire Advisory Board whose members have trained in-house and who believe in-house training contracts are a credible alternative route into the legal profession.

Q: What skills should I focus on to become a great in-house lawyer?

A: Perry started by saying he doesn’t believe there is any great difference between a great in-house lawyer, and a great private practice lawyer. Beyond that, he had three key pieces of advice:

  1. A business is solution based, and the focus is on business outcomes
  2. Don’t forget you’re a lawyer - that is the skill and value that you bring to the table. Not everyone in the business will understand, which can be challenging and is something you’ll need to learn to navigate.
  3. Personal development is really important, and you are responsible for it – nobody else will do this for you.

The key thing you need to be able to do is deliver commercial advice succinctly. Your stakeholders need answers to their questions and communication is very important. Lawyers should be good with words, so don’t abandon your legal role – you are still an advisor and it can’t all be purely commercial, so respect the legal aspects of any advice you give.

Q: What skills do I need to push back against senior members of the organisation?

Chris advised that you will have to handle difficult internal customers, and different people respond to different things so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. This is a skill which you’ll develop over time and you need to learn how best to frame problems in a way that your stakeholders will understand.

One of the main tools at your disposal are your relationships with your stakeholders and it is crucial that you invest in these relationships and build a support system at work.

Ultimately, in the commercial world there are decisions that result in risks and others that affect your integrity. Chris noted that you can lose jobs repeatedly, but you can only lose your integrity once.

Q: What practice area should I aim for if I want to transition to private practice after qualifying in-house?

A: Denise advised to do what you’re interested in, and ideally you should do it soon.

As a junior lawyer, you should try to avoid getting pigeon-holed too early, and it can be a lot easier to make changes earlier in your career. She advised switching roles and sectors to progress. You are responsible for your own personal development, but senior in-house lawyers are increasingly concerned about how to manage training and development for their teams.

Q: Do you have any advice on how to secure a training contract in-house?

Perry indicated that most internal training contracts are awarded to individuals within the organisation who have made themselves indispensable, typically paralegals. It is relatively rare that an organisation will decide it needs trainees and recruit to fill those roles (and certainly not on the same cyclical basis as law firms), but every organisation is different. So, invest in your networks and relationships so that you hear of any opportunities, should they arise.

Q: Do you think the new Solicitor’s Qualifying Examination (SQE) will improve the prospects for future trainees going forward?

The group was reminded that the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority will be replacing the formal training contract to allow aspiring solicitors to build their experience in a more flexible way, to be assessed by formal competency exams.

The panel agreed that it’s unclear how this will affect prospects, as the skills you acquire and require will change over the course of your career, rather than being static, and those are more influential than where you started.

The Q&A panel session was followed by drinks and two speed networking sessions to allow Aspire members time to get to know their peers.

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