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Being an effective in-house counsel with Courtney Dick

We all have different perceptions - of our responsibilities, our duties, and the best way to go about things. Our personal beliefs carry over into our professional lives, impacting the way in which we work and how far we want to stick our neck out (in the case of in-house lawyers) for the corporate’s good. We sat down with Courtney Dick, Senior Lawyer at Biztech Lawyers, to discuss the responsibilities that come with her job. 

Dick’s career began in-house. After graduating from law school she left for London where she worked at NBC’s Universal Media under four different lawyers. She says a huge benefit of going in-house early is the level of exposure you get as to how a business works and  she has noticed that often private practice lawyers often don’t have the time to really understand the differing risk profiles of businesses and provide advice that is “too safe”.

“The role of an in-house lawyer isn’t just legal, there’s a commercial aspect to it. We’re the safety net,” says Dick. Her thoughts are in line with the theory about T-shaped lawyers and the increasing discourse around the role of a modern in-house counsel - that a lawyer should have more skills than just legal ones. 

Dick believes legal is about having a gauge on the entire business which gives counsel the ability to get on top of issues before they become mountains and connecting colleagues to one another to mitigate problems. “Our job is basically to make everyone else's job easier in terms of legal risk and to make sure the company can move forward at the pace that it needs to without creating a roadblock.” 

Legal often garners the reputation of being a roadblock or handbrake. Which is exactly what they don’t want to be. Dick’s solution is simple: “I always try to push the decisions back onto the business and make them aware of the risks dependent on each path but that I will support their decision.” By presenting the facts and the possible outcomes of different scenarios, but putting the onus of the decision on business stakeholders, legal isn’t the one saying no. Dick calls it “turning legal into a ‘yes but do it safely’ kind of function.”.

From Dick’s point of view, the goal of legal is to provide fit-for-purpose advice quickly. “Ensuring we’re not holding up transactions or stopping important conversations.” Legal is a cog in the machine of a company and it pays to act like it. 

Throughout her career at NBC Universal, MediaWorks NZ, and Rocket Lab, Dick discovered common misconceptions that people hold about the legal function within the business. She says that ironically a lot of people like to say things sit with legal more than they do. To combat this Dick has always made a point of using a ticketing system that clearly outlines if a request fits within legal’s remit and to personally educate people on her job and where she can help them.  

“I think people find legal a little bit scary,” she laughs. Dick has been told she can be intimidating and thinks people often come to legal too late because they are scared to tell them something early on. Why? “I think this is because sometimes you have to be a little bit firm with decisions, and you have to force people to follow a process or to get things across your desk before they move forward,” she says. However, it is important to note that the earlier you can involve legal the better we can help and keep a project on path. It's always better to be proactive than reactive. We are going to help no matter what, that's what us lawyers do, but it definitely is easier to be involved in the start, we are great allies, which is why building relationships around the business is so important.

Changing this perception is a priority for Dick, and agility is how she does this - coupled with reminding people that she too is human. “I think that’s key - being able to laugh and joke and to sometimes make fun of how ridiculous lawyers can be.” 

Want to know what it was like being in-house counsel for a space company? You can read the article on Dick’s time at Rocket Lab here. 

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