Obelisk In Action

At our February Friday Live workshop, ‘Helping me, helping you – how to partner with the in house team’ Sophie Atkinson, Head of Digital UK – Legal Team, Telefónica UK Limited gave us an excellent insight into how an in house team works in terms of its relationship to its client, the business, and what they are looking for when they get external legal support. This is so important for any external legal advisers to understand – particularly for consultants. So what are the key messages and how can consultants hit the ground running?

The central message, whilst obvious, is worth re-stating: businesses value an experienced pair of helping hands who can get the job done and add value to them. They need clear, commercially-focused legal advice tailored to their particular business circumstances.

What in house teams love:

  • Commercial advice – they need opinion and solutions – certainly flag risks, but put it in the context of their business (likelihood of it happening, value involved etc.).
  • They need executive summary points that can be sent to the board not a detailed letter of advice, or worse a cut/paste of legislation.
  • Understanding the context of where the advice fits – so be curious. Ask where the advice sits within the business.
  • Getting the balance of ‘precision and polish’ correct for the work involved.

What drives them mad?

  • Being overly legalistic.
  • Copy-and-pasting statutes.
  • No summary, no application to facts.
  • Late advice for contracts – speed is vital.
  • Talking over clients’ heads and not engaging – need to instill trust and confidence in the client across the business- wide range of legal experience (or not).
  • Not taking a view – don’t sit on the fence. Take a position and give recommendations.

What knowledge and skills do you need to advise in the Telecoms sector?

  • Great personal skills are vital for client relationships, intellectual curiosity and an approachable manner.
  • The ability to translate complex legal concepts into plain language and vice versa – such as translating the impact of contract for the business.
  • Understanding of the wider business imperatives such as budgets, targets and how a year is structured within a business.
  • A thorough understanding the regulated sector environment.
  • Financial services, other payment services, impact of block chain developments.
  • Contract law and all the other aspects such as competition law, data protection.
  • They need geeks! People who know how apps, APIs etc. work.

Impact of the evolving legal services market:

  • Definitive move away from just instructing traditional law firms.
  • In house teams are leading the way in working out who they need to do what work when.
  • Fixed fees and clarity of scope of work are the order of the day.
Making Work, Work

If you work on a freelance basis, you may not receive formal appraisals.  However, your personal performance will be central to the chances of being offered new opportunities. Working as a legal consultant s requires you to be aware of the pressures on legal departments to deliver accurate legal and commercially focused advice to their businesses. There may be a perception that freelancers may not take performance issues as seriously as full-time staff because of their temporary nature.  Yet in our experience, successful consultants (as well as personal pride in doing a job well) know that high performance is critical to their success in working in a freelance capacity. This requires an ability to ‘read’ the culture and standards necessary of the permanent team and matching them. However, without a traditional employment structure to set performance reviews and parameters, how does a consultant measure and monitor their performance?

Assess the business needs and priorities

It is vital to find a way to assess the needs and priorities of a client’s business and ensure they are being met. At Obelisk, the client relationship team seek to understand their needs and suggest tailored legal solutions involving specialised consultants. Obelisk has built up a unique picture and understanding of the clients’ needs and pressure points and are aware that a legal team has to deliver to its business to a very high standard. This emphasis is important to understand as a consultant and your credibility and future work opportunities very much depends on meeting the client’s specific needs.

What skills are GC’s looking for?

Needs do vary across organisations and sectors, but there are some broad expectations that can help you measure your performance on the job. We spoke to general counsel across a variety of sectors: banking and financial services, multinational consumer goods and footwear and clothing, to investigate what they see as the key skills and focus for an in house lawyer.

  • Legal competency is a given, but lawyers must be able to show how they keep up to date
  • Evidence of core skills – drafting, negotiation, advocacy and communication
  • Commercial nous, an in-depth understanding of sector specific issues for the business (e.g. resourcing, supply chain, distribution and delivery of services, employment, IP etc.)
  • The ability to forge relationships with sector trade bodies and regulators, if the role requires this
  • Ability to co-ordinate across the different business functions and communicate effectively
  • Capacity to advise the business with solutions, but within their risk appetite – what one GC called ‘Simplify, Navigate and Solve’.
  • Competency with technology platforms – be aware of the commonly used tools in business and particularly those that can help you work effectively Awareness of the cultural ethos and communication styles and be able to report effectively with the context of the business in mind
  • Consider the long-game even when coming in on a very short-term project – clients have had experiences that have left a mess to be cleaned up when the job is done, so it’s vital to understand bigger picture of job you are doing
  • To summarise: good in house lawyers are a part of the business in all senses.

How to build this into your career as a consultant

Here is some guidance on continuous reviewing of performance as a legal consultant:

Aside from analysing your performance from a client perspective, it’s important to assess your own goals and objectives in line with the client’s: is the project moving you forwards?  What can you learn whilst working to improve your skills and experience? Is there any capacity for training informal or formal whilst in the role? Such as handbooks and templates which may give sector specific insights. At Obelisk, you will get free access to PLC when in role and reduced cost access to external training courses, as well as free monthly workshops and links in the weekly update letter. Under the new SRA Continuing Competency requirements, you have to keep up to date and keep a plan and record of how you are maintaining professional competent.

Communication

It is our experience that the key to successful freelance work is building trust swiftly and this is achieved by clear and open communication. Address minor frustrations before they escalate. Your client may not be showing any signs of frustration but are you experiencing some of your own? Is there a way of solving the issue, could you be communicating more effectively? Reflect on the ease in which you are able to complete tasks, if you don’t have everything you need to do the job well, it is up to you to speak up. Understanding targets and priorities are particularly important when working in a freelance capacity. We can help and advise you if you are unclear.

As a consultant, you need to have empathy and understanding of every client and their business on a level that you would have as a permanent member of staff, so continually reviewing these key points against your own work is vital. We seek feedback from clients during each role and will discuss this with you as well as an end of role assessment. We view this as key in terms of meeting our client’s needs and ensuring that our consultants are given every chance to succeed.