Tips for lawyers starting out in their in-house career—an interview with Clare Woolley

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Sophie Gould talks to Clare Woolley, Head of Legal at RAC, who gives her tips for lawyers starting out their careers in an in-house legal department.

What advice do you have for lawyers starting out in their in-house career?

I would say go with the flow and don’t have a fixed idea of where you’re going to end up. When you’re a trainee you don’t know a lot about law let alone the area that you want to specialise in or whether you want to work in private practice or in-house. Take every opportunity that’s in front of you, don’t prejudge whether you are going to like something or not. If you find don’t like it, then don’t do it again!

People can have too rigid an idea of their career path, which doesn’t always play well to their natural talents or allow them to maximise opportunites that cross their paths. Take time to reflect on each experience that you have, particularly the more difficult ones; understand what made it difficult for you and what you would do in the same situation next time to make It easier. But at the same time, whilst reflection and learning from mistakes is important , do not to set yourself unrealistic expectations and try to achieve perfection. It is more important to understand where your strengths and weaknesses, try to adapt your style to accommodate themlie and understand areas where you may need to ask for extra help and assistance.

I think lawyers and law firms can be very demanding expecting people to excel in all areas; but actually, people aren’t like that. People aren’t perfect and there is joy in that imperfection! Over time you will learn to surround yourself with people who’s skills and personalities complement your own. You will be a leader one day and the aim should be to create teams that achieve a balance between people’s skills, allowing people to concentrate on the areas in which their natural talents lie. This allows people  to be themselves and to feel comfortable in the role that they are performing. The consequences are  that your team will give the best of themselves and be more effective and the business will get the best out of the legal team.

How do you help your junior lawyers understand business risk as opposed to legal risk? How important is relationship building to this?

I encourage lawyers to think about risk in two ways: what’s the value or quantity of the risk if it should happen, and what’s the likelihood of it happening. You can have a really high value of risk but that is so unlikely to occur that the end of the world is more likely to happen! I encourage them to put that context into the advice they’re giving back to the business, because you’re giving the business the tools to make decisions. Over time and with experience more senior in-house lawyers can sometimes make the risk-based decisions and judgment calls (within parameters for risk appetite agreed by the business). But it is always important to learn the discipline of analysing the risk in detail  before you start helping to make commercial decisions.

Unless your business has gone completely rogue and is consistently trying to do things that are absolutely ridiculous, you need to adjust your risk outlook to the risk appetite of the business. If you’re consistently going back to the business and saying ‘no’ even for very low risks, eventually they’lljust ignore you. If this is happening then it either means that you’re not judging the risk appetite of the business correctly or there is a fundamental governance problem within the business.

This goes back to why it's so important to build relationships within the business – you need to get a feel for the risk appetite of your high-level senior stakeholders. If you work for a board that’s completely risk averse they might want you to police the business and be very stringent on meeting every legal requirement and accepting no risk. On the other hand, your board may be quite entrepreneurial and expect for low level risks to be accepted as part of doing business and only wish to know about very material risks. Getting to know those individuals on a one-to-one basis and having a feel for how they react to things will help you to reduce workload by weeding certain things out before they get to them and/or escalate things for decisions and therefore get the deal done more quickly. You would quickly lose your credibility at board level if you were consistently misjudging the type of risks that the board wanted to know about.

It is important not just to look for legal risk but to focus on the commercial risks too. These often speak to the board in a much more tangible way. If something looks like it doesn’t make commercial sense, I’d expect us to double-check it and ask questions until we understand the commercial drivers. It’s not just about allowing you to do your job in crafting the “legals” but also adding an important safety net for the business in terms of checks and balances where something really does not stack up. It doesn’t always win you friends and you have to do it very carefully (because you can undermine relationships that you’ve built) but if you managed to identify something that could be a commercial mistake, then it is worth it. Lawyers can be useful to ask the commercial questions that no one else has dared to ask! Sometimes people forget that by the time commercial lawyers get to 6+PQE, you’ve seen a lot of transactions. If you feel like there’s something that doesn’t stack up commercially, it probably doesn’t or you are missing an important piece of the jigsaw.

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