In-house legal teams are an integral part of many New Zealand organisations, both in corporate organisations and in central and local government; but what’s it like to be the sole legal counsel in your organisation? According to these lawyers who have taken up that challenge, it’s varied, unpredictable, different from any other legal role they have held, and, without exception, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
I recently spoke with three sole counsel who have followed different career pathways and who enjoy different working arrangements. However, the need to be adaptable, flexible and ready for whatever their organisation might need on any given day is something that they all have in common.
Thriving on opportunity
Being the sole legal face in the organisation means that any time there is a legal query, there is an expectation that the answer is only as far away as a quick email or phone call, or even a conversation over the coffee mugs in the staff kitchen. A typical day seems only to be predictable by its unpredictability. There is a need to be both a generalist – covering off employment, intellectual property, privacy, contractual responsibilities and governance arrangements, etc, and a specialist – understanding the intricacies of the business, having an in-depth knowledge of the particular legal environment the organisation is involved in and understanding where a legal perspective can add value to business planning.
As well as being a readily available resource for legal queries and advice, being a sole counsel includes the responsibility of being involved at the front end of projects. They anticipate need, identify risk and add another perspective at the planning table. Although that makes for a busy workload, there is satisfaction to be gained from being involved with an issue through its life cycle, rather than dipping in and out, as may be more commonly the case as an external adviser.
Recognising when external support will be required and managing the external legal spend and relationship is another skill set for the sole counsel. They need to be well versed in balancing the tension between being a responsive, proactive team member and recognising when unpalatable advice, however unpopular, may be necessary.
Combining all of the above in one person is a big ask, but these sole counsel embrace the opportunity to build their knowledge and expertise across both legal and business issues. Without fail, they commented on the satisfaction they gain from the variety, breadth and depth of their roles.
It’s all about the relationships
For anyone who thought a lawyer might be drawn to a sole counsel role because of the “sole”, think again! Each of these lawyers emphasise the importance of the relationships they have both within their organisations and externally, which means they feel well supported in their roles. Perhaps, most importantly, there is recognition that a well-functioning sole counsel is one who makes the most of the resources available to them, guards against complacency and builds in checks and balances to ensure they don’t fall into the trap of operating in an ivory tower.
The Government Legal Network provided early support for Susanne Frances when she first took up her role with the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. She says she has benefited from a ready-made support network that she has been able to access. This has been provided both formally, through regular meeting with other chief legal advisers, and informally in the working relationship she has built with other sole counsel and the opportunity to piggy back off training initiatives in other organisations.
Emily Acland from Vocus Group has made the most of her dotted line relationship with the legal team from the Australian arm of her organisation, and the regular contact and support that it provides.
Mark Boddington, Legal Counsel at Scientific Software and Systems, highlights the relationship with external advisors and good channels of communication within the organisation as key support mechanisms.
The relationships built with other non-legal professionals and colleagues within their organisations, and the diverse thinking that working with those who have other skill sets promotes, is an element of the role that each identified as particularly satisfying and rewarding.
Proactively managing risk
Risk is a topic that comes up repeatedly from the sole counsel I spoke to. They recognise that their role provides them with the opportunity to proactively manage risk for their organisations. As Mark noted, “legal risks are not always obvious, sometimes you have to seek them out”. Although that can be challenging, there is a particular satisfaction in managing risk well. Emily observed that being in a sole counsel role offers the opportunity to become fully immersed within the business, developing a deeper understanding of the impact of certain risks, which in turn builds a greater understanding of where an acceptable amount of risk might sit.
Susanne says the nature of the role means she must be up to date, and therefore confident in calculating risk in an everyday context, given there is often a requirement for just-in-time advice, without the opportunity to go away and undertake in depth research.
Flexibility in action
At first glance, it would be easy to assume that the role of sole legal counsel does not lend itself to flexible working arrangements. Although I did not set out to talk to sole counsel who work flexibly, both Mark and Susanne, and their organisations, model flexibility in action.
Mark and his partner relocated from Wellington to Nelson two years ago after the birth of their first child to achieve the holy grail of parenting – wider family support. Mark now provides legal support to his organisation, which has staff in Wellington, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Italy and Scotland, by splitting his time between Nelson and Wellington. Efficient information technology systems and a keen eye for the most effective use of his time provides Mark with the flexibility to live in the region that suits his family best, whilst undertaking the work of his choice.
Susanne has primary caregiver responsibilities for her four children. This is managed in a ‘week on, week off’ arrangement with her ex-husband. A flexible arrangement that has her in the office from 9am-2pm in those weeks, as well as being available via phone or email outside those hours, means that she is able to balance both her parental responsibilities and provide the support the organisation needs.
Each of these sole counsel spoke rather wistfully of the expectation that they had when they first started the role. They anticipated that they would eventually reach the “quiet time” or as Emily put it, an expectation that “if I just get this done, then I’ll be on top of things”.
They have all come to the conclusion that the nature of the role means that is never likely to happen. Rather than see this as a disappointment, the consensus was that this provides the opportunity to enjoy the moment and embrace the ever changing opportunities the role brings. Susanne noted that it’s also important to look back and monitor progress and keep some perspective on what has been achieved.
The fast-natured pace of change in many organisations means a sole counsel might never quite get to the end of the ‘to do’ list, but there is huge satisfaction in making some progress, as well as playing a pivotal role in the achievements of their organisations.
Some tips for success in a sole counsel role
- Choose an industry, organisation that aligns with your interests.
- Don’t rush into a sole counsel role – build some experience whether that is a grounding in private practice, being part of an in-house team or developing an in-depth knowledge in a related role in the industry.
- Try to learn all facets of the business – know what the business does, why and the culture and values that drive decisions.
- Pay attention to relationships – they will help you be resilient and you will experience great generosity from other practitioners and colleagues.
- When you first start – “look under the hood” of everything, then decide your priorities.
- Appreciate non-lawyers for the skills they have – think outside the box when you are identifying what resources are available in your organisation.
Mark Boddington has been employed as legal counsel at Scientific Software and Systems since 2014. Previous experience gained in the regulatory and compliance team of a multinational corporation and his academic background in information technology law led Mark to a role that combines his various interests. Mark was the winner of the 2018 ILANZ Young In-house Lawyer of the Year.
Emily Acland is General Counsel, New Zealand for Vocus Group, a provider of telecommunication and electricity services across Australia and New Zealand. Emily started her legal career as a private practice solicitor, firstly in New Zealand and then in a “magic circle” firm in London before moving to an in-house team for an ASX/NZX listed company on her return to New Zealand. She took up her role at Vocus in 2016.
Susanne Frances (formerly Susanne Ruthven) is Chief Legal Advisor at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples. With a background as a government lawyer and then a barrister in the areas of public law, constitutional law, international law and human rights and two stints as a Green Party electoral candidate, Susanne has always had a passion for improving outcomes for those who are not represented at the decision-making table. A role in the ministry combines this passion with the opportunity to be more directly involved in shaping positive outcomes.
Gabrielle O’Brien gabrielle.o’firstname.lastname@example.org is Executive Manager of ILANZ.