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The future according to the next generation of legal leaders

"Courage is the fairest adornment of youth." Wise words from German novelist Erich Maria Remarque. In the same vein, the wisdom of elders is derived from their experiences - triumphant, dire and mundane. Combining courage with wisdom is a recipe for success, and it is exactly what the in-house industry needs.

When we began InView a couple of years ago, in-house was the underdog. Now it is a hot commodity. There are three viable career paths for lawyers - private practice, in-house, and new law. Gone are the days of in-house lawyers being looked down upon; more lawyers are aware of the opportunity, the potential and the openness of working in-house. While the private practice world is still figuring out how to unstitch itself from burdensome traditions, in-house lawyers are dreaming of cross-functional, tech-enhanced legal futures. In essence, in-house is like the tech industry to the business world - it's where the real change is at.

At our London InView Conference in 2022, we sat down with the next generation of in-house counsel to unpack what change they want to see, and perhaps the change they want to be too.

A new dawn:

"The in-house market has picked up massively, and I've seen more roles for in-house lawyers than ever before," says Sam Horsfall, Senior Legal Counsel at global juice and coffee bar Joe & THE JUICE. The opportunity to foster an admirable, exciting and innovative profession is ripe, and Horsfall implores us to realize that. She also says it's important counsel make sure their business values them for what they offer from a productivity rather than a reactive perspective.  

"I've come from private practice quite recently which is very linear, the career progression obvious, whereas in-house is about taking more control over what you're doing and focusing on getting the most out of the job," Horsfall explains. "Career progression doesn't have to be linear; it doesn't have to mean that you're going to move from head of legal to GC. You can explore different areas, you can even explore not being in the law anymore."

Her point is important as many in-house lawyers are naturally business-savvy folk drawn to the commercial world. A step in-house can be a step into an array of business roles, continuing to drive for the synergy of the legal function with the wider business facilitates cross-functional legal.

Creating the future:

Barbara Dealey, junior In-house Counsel at Peak AI, wants to see more technology integrated into our legal practices. "There are datasets available that could be used to power what legal teams do, for example, in due diligence, funding and investment rounds that would speed up that process and give us more time to think and advise."

The next generation of in-house counsel does see legal tech as a norm, the skepticism and questioning of the potential threat of AI to a lawyer's work is long gone from their minds. In fact it may never have been there to begin with.

Horsfall dreams of a proactive legal future where litigation is a rarity. "My expertise is not best placed when we're in litigation, it's best placed when we have a problem that might end up in litigation if we don't do it right in the first place," she says. "That's what I want to see the in-house legal profession recognized as – a proactive team that helps with the commercial decisions. That we're there from the beginning and not an afterthought when everything goes wrong. And it's on us to push that story."

Fabien Bonavia, Senior Director of Legal and Transaction Management at OakNorth Bank, believes in-house lawyers will be regarded as agents of change. While that philosophy is encouraged at OakNorth, he says it's important for in-house lawyers to modify their way of thinking within what he terms a shifting landscape. "The legal industry is currently going through a massive shift and the expectation of commercial clients is changing. At OakNorth we always want to see ourselves as agents for change and that thought process is pushed on all teams within the organization, including the legal function.

"It's about legal not being just processors for whatever external suppliers and law firms provide us, simply checking their work, it's about using our external lawyers as an important resource. We are there as strategic advisors to bring ideas to our CEO."

Being a strategic advisor plays into the concept of an embedded legal function, which in turn means lawyers with more than just legal acumen. Bonavia stresses the importance of relationships with non-lawyers and that in-house counsel should prioritize them to make great future decisions.

"As we progress our careers, it's important to ask questions and meet people from outside our workplaces. In my case, some of the most important and gratifying conversations I've had are with people who are not lawyers. It enables you to bring all these ideas to the table, and in an innovative organization people place value on the fact that you don't have a one-track mind. Always be thinking of how you can be the best version of yourself."

A new culture

Our next generation believes the future in-house culture is, to be frank, not typically legal. Gone will be the days of a hierarchical, competitive and conservative legal culture, and instead collaboration, innovation and humanness will triumph.

Danny Pamma, In-house Counsel at Leading Works, believes at the root of this is upskilling hard and soft skills. Placing weight on the non-technical will transform the way counsel interacts with the business. Pamma is also an advocate for mapping out one's own career path rather than focusing on job titles and he encourages lawyers of the future not to get caught up in hierarchy. "Job titles will come at some point, though you may have to move away from your organization to have progression."

Being open and accepting of failure will be the norm in the new legal culture. "As you're building your career, it's not unusual to get things wrong. You must be open to making mistakes, having that openness within the team and, more importantly, within the business. It's not about always having the perfect solution," says Pamma. "Businesses move fast, you're never going to have the right solution to the right problem for very long. In law school, and even for most of your training, you're taught to think there's a solution to a problem. Day-to-day, I don't think that's realistic."

The work environment is also key to performance; a supportive and open workplace in which employees can thrive. Bonavia says a positive environment allows employees to bring their whole selves to work. "What that means practically, is don't think of yourself as just a lawyer: you're there as an inquisitive individual, to ask questions and build your network, both within the organization and externally."

Organizational alignment

A supportive environment, which includes not just team members but encompasses the entire business, is imperative when people find themselves in stressful situations. These days, a company's genuine interest in the wellbeing of its workers and a good work environment are crucial, and this will only become more pertinent.

"The world is changing; we are on the cusp of a recession," says Bonavia. "In terms of the globalized changes, there is the increase in interest rates, supply chain issues and geopolitical risk. For people to thrive in these uncertain times, they need to be given the space to be creative – independent but supported. The best in-house lawyers get the chance to prove themselves and are then pushed."

Knowing what kind of company culture works for you is vital, says Horsfall. "When I left private practice, I wanted to be part of a culture and to provide value without being a cog that no one cared about." She also stresses it is incumbent on companies to play their part, to make sure they find the right people to fit into their culture. "At Joe's we have a super-strong culture, it's young, loud, social and fast."

Pamma agrees. "Picking the right company culture is important. Working at a fintech company, often the commercial teams just want to get a deal done. As a lawyer, you want to not just create a good environment for yourself but also across the business to ensure your advice is valued – even if you are quiet."

Horsfall says she is fortunate to have a GC who is a supportive team member. "I know he will back me up, that he will be on my side whatever I do. Because of this, I can do my best work without fear of being left out on my own or thrown under the bus. Working in such a supportive environment allows me to be me and to do my best work."

Support comes in different forms. For Dealey, it's about equipping teams with the right tools to do the job. Peak AI recently supplied employees with electronic notepads, which she says have revolutionized the teams. Prioritizing wellbeing is another issue she places importance on.

Personal pathways to success

In the new legal future, climbing the ranks to partnership or GC won't be the only way to success. Our next generation believes those who will succeed are those who are fulfilled by their work. The opportunity to work within one's values and in a business they are inspired by creates a genuine passion for work.

"When you think about career progression, you must also think about what is important to you and how that sits with what the business needs from you. You need to identify what it is that you enjoy doing and what you're not so keen on," says Bonavia. "And that's not unique to the law, that is all professions. Individuals at a certain age, at a certain point in their lives, need to have honest conversations with themselves to help guide them through their careers."

"Build advocates and have friends within your organization," he advises. "You can set yourself apart by being vocal. Telling people where you want to go means you're raising your profile. Don't hide your weaknesses. People are drawn to those who are comfortable in themselves and who are self-aware. They come across as secure and possessing the ability to build trust.

"At OakNorth, our CEO is surrounded by people who are completely different to him, from diverse backgrounds and with different skill sets. You always want to surround yourself with people who are different to you in terms of your educational and cultural background, your own incentives and your personality. Personality is the key – personality and culture."

In-house lawyers are already at the coalface of the commercial success of modern agile business, developing and using their legal skills and strategic nous, embracing these often-challenging environments. In the future, their value will be magnified as the next generation of counsel fosters a culture that creates value.

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