The role of in-house counsel is demanding and multifaceted. Given the huge variation of work environments - some working alone, others as part of a team - do those who flourish in this job share any characteristics? And if so, what are they?
Asim Khan is the International Commercial Counsel at Personio. He's been in the legal game for a decade now. And in that time Khan has noticed five key traits that he thinks enables in-house counsel to reach their full potential - and it's a happy coincidence that they all start with the letter C. The five C's of in-house counsel:
Consciousness. Khan says that for an in-house counsel to be truly impactful within their business, they need to have "a keen sense of individual and collective insight of the objectives of each department". Not to mention the objectives of individual stakeholders, such as the executive team, and their own legal function. Acquiring this insight comes with consciousness; in-house counsel needs to make an effort to be in tune with the business around them.
Khan is a fan of the "walk the halls concept", that is, personal interaction with different individuals and teams allows you to understand department objectives and what is happening on the ground and may become an issue. "This can be achieved by occasional attendance of team meetings, drop-in sessions, and even a random message asking to discuss a particular topic. No one ever said no to an opportunity to tell you what they do."
You should be just as conscious of external factors that impact the work of an in-house team. This involves having a sound understanding of the market, your competitors, and even any socio-political factors that could affect your business. When it comes to the product your business creates or the services they offer, in-house counsel should have a sound understanding of how those impact the world, not to mention being conscious of your regulatory responsibility as a lawyer. This is becoming an topic of increasing importance for the modern day counsel and relates to the echoes of legal being the “conscious” of a business.
Collaboration. Collaboration is underpinned by trust, which comes with communicating effectively, honoring your commitments, being helpful, and importantly, showing people that you care. Khan believes in working holistically, which means using your emotional intelligence. "You've got to have that skill of relating to different people at different levels and working together towards a goal," he says.
He actively seeks out different perspectives and aims to work with a variety of people and says being an active listener is a skill lawyers can really benefit from. "Lawyers can fall into the trap of assessing a situation and making our minds up without fully listening. But collaboration is as much as about listening than speaking." Khan believes a surefire way to improve your listening skills is to become a mentor.
Supplier engagement is an example of how collaboration can elevate the business. Speaking about his own experience, Khan mentions an example concerning a disjointed approach to supplier onboarding. "Each function had their own process, and there was significant duplication which was a very painful experience for each party involved." The legal team led a project to combine the efforts of business functions and workstreams, which allowed everyone to share knowledge and expertise, ask questions, and debate best practices. "True collaboration like this brings a team of knowledgeable professionals to address an issue which could not be tackled individually."
Critical thinking. This is the skill and practice that allows you to see the bigger picture, recognize risks and opportunities, and use them to your business's advantage. Khan links this to the 'legal eagles' theory - that as in-house counsel you are flying high, keeping watch over the business, and when you spot a potential issue, you zoom in and apply critical thinking to solve the problem. "Critical thinking is a unique art of conducting a SWOT analysis or Socratic questioning as it is better known, probing and analyzing deep questions before accepting ideas," he says.
Commercial mindedness. Paramount for in-house counsel, in fact you should be ever-expanding your commercial toolkit to hone your commercial skills; sharpening your commercial toolkit. In-house counsel ultimately serve a profit-based business, so the link between corporate law and commercial awareness is intrinsic. "It makes sense that to be a great in-house counsel, you must have more than just legal acumen, you must have commercial savvy and an understanding of the business environment in which you operate," says Khan. "There is nothing better than spending time with your commercial/finance colleagues and picking their brains on how a business makes money, what's a really good sale."
The commercial team can also help you to upskill your knowledge, and Khan recommends spending time with them, at meetings or informal scenarios. He says that during a commercial meeting he came across the notion of 'confidence level', explaining it as "being the potential for a deal to close and seeing how interaction with the legal team, along with others, impacted that percentage". There are tried and tested business theories, which provide a great up opportunity to upskill. These could be financial skills, operational skills i.e. agile methodology, or even people management skills. You just need to be prepared to ask.
Care. Care for your organization and its people, and care for the impact they make. Understanding how they fit into the bigger picture of the business goals. "Emotional Intelligence is at the heart of this and is what, as a lawyer, you care about to elevate your work and your role in the business," says Khan. By being your authentic self, not just a lawyer, you will be a better colleague. Although you practice law in a business setting, people want to deal with a person. "The best compliment - well, I am taking it as a compliment - I've ever received was "you're quite normal for a lawyer," laughs Khan.
There you have it, five essential tools for any excellent in-house counsel's toolkit.