The rise of the pragmatic (and disruptive) GC – an interview with Swati Paul, General Counsel at London Luton Airport

The rise of the pragmatic (and disruptive) GC – an interview with Swati Paul, General Counsel at London Luton Airport

When you work in-house, you’re no longer just a lawyer, you’re a business advisor balancing the commercial needs of the business with providing sound legal advice. 

What skills do you need to do this and to develop people’s trust in your judgement? Sophie Gould talks to Swati Paul, General Counsel at London Luton Airport, about how in-house lawyers can make their mark in the business and how they are disrupting the profession.

Tell us about your background and career to date …

I trained in a large commercial firm in London.  I then spent the first part of my career working on international projects for large City law firms, which was very exciting. However, once I had a family I found that the travelling and the hours, increasingly difficult to manage.

I knew then that I had to do something different. I did a contract in the government sector and then became sole counsel of a manufacturing company for two years. I then moved to another company where I worked in a large in-house legal team of about 100 lawyers for seven years. The career structure was flat and my boss had been there for many years so there really wasn’t anywhere to progress. The only way forward, was to move and that’s when I joined London Luton Airport. I’ve been GC here for more than three years now. I worked on my own for two years but now there’s two of us in the team, plus a stable of outsourced advisors.

In my second year, I was appointed to the board, not as a director, but in my own capacity as general counsel. A year later, I was appointed to the senior management team, which reports directly to the CEO.

Which areas do you and your team currently cover?

The team is responsible for all the legal work in the airport which covers the whole spectrum. This includes: commercial law, corporate governance, construction, capital projects, procurement, operational matters and the management of disputes. I’m also getting increasingly involved in coordinating compliance programmes and we recently delivered the GDPR compliance. On a typical day, I could be reviewing contracts, looking at business strategy and how to solve problems, or answering ad hoc queries.

How do you balance giving strategic advice versus giving legal advice, and is there a difference in your outlook when you’re doing the two?

When you’re general counsel, you’re no longer just a lawyer – you’re there as a business advisor. What you’re bringing to the table is business understanding and commercial awareness. The way I operate is that I’m very pragmatic. The foundation is your legal advice, but I give strategic advice and legal advice within the context of a practical situation.

I’m employed to protect the interests of the company and that’s the hat I have on all the time. Whether they love your advice, or they don’t, you have to give what you feel is the right legal advice and the correct commercial steer. It doesn’t mean that they’ll listen to you all the time, but you must have your feet on the ground and have the backbone to say what you think. There’s no point in you being there if you’re just going to agree with what everyone says.

You were Solicitor of the Year (In-house) at the Law Society Excellence Awards last year and were a finalist at the Lawyer Awards. What do you think made you stand out from the crowd?

At the time, the airport was delivering a ground-breaking project in aviation which hadn’t been done before. The impact of having a novel system meant that there was no legal structure to deal with it. I’d been at the airport about two weeks and I barely understood any of the jargon or what they were trying to do! I had to unpick the whole thing to understand the operation and the commercial drivers.

It meant devising a legal structure that would protect the airport but also deliver the results. I ended up doing all the drafting myself and agreeing it all with the business. I won the Excellence Award because I’d delivered something that was completely novel and had had to build trust within the business to achieve that.

What do you think are the key skills junior lawyers need to develop to succeed in-house?

I have outlined 5 key skills below.

  1. Excellent legal skills. This is mandatory. At GC level that’s a given, but for junior lawyers, they need to keep updated, do ongoing training and work on drafting skills.
  2. Communication skills. Both oral and written are important. These can be continually improved.
  3. High standards of work. I always allow myself time to do a piece of work properly. If it means pushing back and saying I need more time, I will do that. My commitment is to deliver excellent work. If the work is not to the right standard, someone is going to pull you up on it. It exposes you to risk, personally, but also exposes the business to risk. You shouldn’t compromise on that, because that is what you’re judged on.
  4. Asking questions. Another important skill is asking questions so you fully understand what is required. It is always better to ask the “stupid/obvious” question.
  5. Understanding the business. Without this understanding, you will not be able to identify the risks and commercial issues.

What skills do junior lawyers need to get buy-in from the business and to get the business to understand their value?

It’s all the things we’ve already talked about. If the business feels that your advice is pertinent and correct, then they’ll cut you some slack. If they feel you’re just rubber stamping in order to get their project done, they’ll try and push past you. It’s about building respect.

I’m not saying it is necessarily easy to do when you’re junior. And it’s not even easy to do when you’re senior. The process of building a relationship with the business and demonstrating your value takes time. When I started at the airport, I wasn’t automatically consulted on things and I didn’t automatically gain visibility. That came over time when people saw I was consistently doing good work and solving problems.

You will also need to demonstrate to the business that you understand what they want. Your objective is to work with them, as well as to mitigate legal and other risks. If there’s a sticky situation and you’ve helped the business to solve the problem, then people start to trust you. Once they trust you, they start to trust your judgement.

Different people have different skillsets, so they should analyse their weaknesses and find a way of addressing them. It may be as simple as looking on the internet for help, listening to a TED talk, reading management books or taking a training course. There are ways of teaching yourself skills and there’s a huge amount of information out there.

How do you think the role of general counsel (and the in-house team) is going to evolve?

I think that GCs can do this in two ways: it can be a technical legal role, or a role which is broader than this. It also depends on the type of business and how structured it is. GCs are taking on additional responsibilities. I have recently taken on the responsibility for insurance and have someone reporting in to me on this.

GCs have dislodged the seat at the table that private practice lawyers, previously had. When I first came to the airport, the trusted advisors were the large law firms. But now, when their advice comes in, people often come to me and ask for my view, whatever the specialism. Good quality in-house lawyers can disrupt – and are disrupting – the way law firms interact with businesses. In doing this, they are becoming an essential part of the management of a company.

Further reading for subscribers.

Communicating with others - guidance on different styles of communication and how best to work with each one, providing practical tips on negotiating, giving and receiving feedback, and presenting.

Gaining influence within your organisation -  practical tips for gaining influence within your organisation.

Global collaboration - an outline of the main areas an in-house lawyer needs to consider when planning cross-border projects or deals, including logistics, language, trust, negotiation and teamwork

Effective communication: the difference between a good and a great in-house lawyer—an interview with Kent Dreadon

From in-house lawyer to trusted advisor: the importance of understanding your business—an interview with Kent Dreadon

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About the author:

Sophie is Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX Legal - an award winning legal tech startup helping law firms and organisations manage a flexible work force and supporting lawyers to make smarter life/work choices. 

As part of her portfolio career Sophie runs various learning and development and networking forums for in-house lawyers and mentors junior lawyers.  These include Flying Solo for small and solo legal teams and Aspire for junior in-house lawyers which she runs for LexisNexis UK.  She also works with schools and organisations to promote social mobility within the legal profession, working with The Social Mobility Business Partnership and Aspiring Solicitors. 

She trained as a lawyer in the City and worked as an in-house lawyer for 10 years including as Head of Legal for Virgin Radio and Ginger Media Group.  

Outside of work she is happily married with three sons and enjoys morning walks along the beach with her two dogs.