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How to contribute to business goals as a lawyer

Once a lawyer steps in-house they become much more than a just lawyer, they also become a driver and facilitator of a business's success. Fabien Bonavia, former Senior Director, Legal and Transaction Management at OakNorth Bank, discusses contributing to business goals.

When Fabien Bonavia joined OakNorth Bank he received the following advice: "You need to stop thinking of yourself as just a lawyer and start thinking of yourself an individual within an entrepreneurial business who is there to achieve very commercial goals."

These words of wisdom would go on to shape not only his definition of success, but also how he sought to achieve it. "It's about formulating and framing your role as a lawyer within the wider company, so you're highly valuable to the organization," he says.

In framing that role, Bonavia recommends that lawyers not only wear the hat of legal advisor, but crucially that of a financial advisor as well: less about spreadsheets, and more about understanding that as well as being a lawyer they work within a profit-based organization and must bend their role to match those outcomes. "Lawyers need to be commercially minded, not just legally competent," he says.

What constitutes business success? Bonavia says that while profitability is very important as creating an exceptional customer experience is our priority, times have changed since the '80s and '90s when things were only about profit. "Businesses today need to deliver more than just shareholder value." And he stresses it's important to recognize that the definition of success is as subject to macro trends as anything else in the world.

In defining the best path to success, it is integral to ask yourself what your role is in the business' goals. This question prompted an epiphany for Bonavia. "The reality is, teams are incentivized and motivated to largely achieve the same goal, in so far that it is maybe building a book of business or achieving success in that respect. Everyone is being pushed in that direction.

"You contribute to the business' success by identifying how the objectives of an organization evolve through time. Most successful organizations have objectives that evolve through time. It's important to have some element of self-awareness and ask yourself, 'Am I doing all I can to contribute to this and promote these objectives?'"

Identify ways you can be simultaneously a driver and facilitator of a business' success. The Covid-19 pandemic provided Bonavia and his team with the perfect opportunity to put their methodology to work and think outside the box.

On a normal day for OakNorth, success is, among other things, being a credible lender - creating access to finance, especially for those who haven't always had it - and fostering good customer experiences. And while every organization has differing values, OakNorth's are centered around its quality of service, speed of execution, and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) objectives.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, Bonavia's team's definition of success changed. If they were to simply apply the usual blunt instruments such as standard contracts to their clients' Covid-ravaged businesses, it would, in his words "probably ruin the customer relationship and also not benefit us or our own balance sheets".

Success evolved to involve looking carefully at data and customer relationships, picking up the phone and talking to clients, and finding the best way to assist those businesses: from blunt tools to more bespoke offerings. "We took a more human, rather than just a technical textbook view," he says. "Don't rely on documentation and data alone, actually speak to your clients."

Bonavia's definition of success is as varied as the work he undertakes at OakNorth Bank - sometimes unpredictable - but that is what's required to be a value-add function within a modern agile business.

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