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The GPs of the Legal World - In-house lawyers

03 November 2017 - By  Sian Wingate

An in-house lawyer is sometimes referred to as the ‘GP of the legal world’.

It’s true that there are a number of similarities. Like GPs, we triage a number of different matters in any given day. Similarly, we have to analyse whether we can give an answer straight away or whether we need to refer it on for specialist advice.

A doctor checking a child

However, a key difference is that whereas a GP has a dedicated 15-minute appointment slot to listen to the patient, ask more questions and get the history before deciding on a response, in-house lawyers are less likely to have this.

The external and obvious reasons for this are varied. Time pressures to get through workload, working from a different office location or an over-reliance on email to exchange information are some examples of why picking up the phone or arranging a face-to-face meeting may be the exception rather than the norm.

Permission to spend time with colleagues

I wonder though, if there is also an unconscious bias that suggests that permission is somehow not implicitly given to us to dig deeper, ask more questions or spend time with a colleague. It may be seen as time-wasting, and not ‘real’ lawyering?

I am sure that many other in-house lawyers have shared the experience of confidently replying to an email, perhaps drafting a document in response, pressing send and feeling satisfied that another work matter has been ticked off the (usually long) list. Offering a solution together with an output are often our pre-programmed measures of success, especially if you started out in private practice.

I am also confident that many, like me, have had a follow-up chat which revealed that the email didn’t quite communicate what the colleague really needed, the document didn’t quite hit the right note and the work matter now needs to be re-visited or worse, begun again.

Just like the GP, there is a benefit in allocating protected time with a colleague or a team to chat through the legal query whether in person, over the phone or video conference.

Investing time in learning your business is investing time in your professional development

A GP spends, on average, around a decade training to be a doctor and specialising as a GP before they are permitted to see patients without direct supervision. It’s a fair assumption that an in-house lawyer needs to invest some meaningful time in learning their craft too. Colleagues probably expect you to understand your company’s core business so that you can tailor your legal or commercial input accordingly.

Most of us don’t have a decade to learn the nuances of the myriad of functions throughout our workplace. So we need to learn on the job, learn quickly and manage our workload at the same time.

That workload should include giving yourself permission to use your working time to develop your knowledge of your business by meeting and speaking with colleagues.

Relationship management for the in-house legal function

A way to achieve this is a relationship management approach.

At my workplace, our general counsel actively encourages her team to allow time to chat with colleagues. This may seem to be a tall order when we have 350 such colleagues spread across five offices. Some tried and tested examples we use are:

  • Taking the time to travel to other offices if you are multi-location: Seeing the in-house lawyer in person can de-mystify our role and humanise us.
  • Hosting clinics at offices when visiting: We let our colleagues know when we will be in town and we book out protected time at their office without meetings. We encourage walk-ups or pre-booked slots if that’s what our colleagues need.
  • Adopting a relationship management approach: For high-use business units who need frequent legal assistance, we are each allocated a key contact for that team. For a team of three lawyers with 15 business units, this is manageable. The benefit of this is a deep knowledge of that team’s core function which results in quicker responses to their legal and commercial needs.
  • Having a wander around your own office for a chat: The ‘water cooler’ approach is a great way to find out what is happening or for a colleague to ask a quick sense check.
  • Giving yourself permission not to look at your email for a blocked part of the day or week: Email is useful, there’s no denying that. However, the cautionary tale mentioned above can be avoided if email becomes a part of your day to day activities, rather than the driver of them.
  • Encouraging your colleagues to call you first and email you second: The chat to walk through their query can result in its conclusion quite often.
  • Asking if you can attend another business unit’s team meeting or strategy day: This offers an insight into what your colleagues have as their upcoming focus and work out if you need to partner with them.
  • Asking your colleagues what they want from you: It’s tempting to offer a buffet of services that ‘legal’ performs. However, our community of in-house lawyering is evolving into a consultancy type service and so it’s important to know what your colleagues truly want.
  • Delivering training workshops with colleagues on how to instruct you, what information you need and what you do not: It is not intuitive for non-lawyers to know what level of detail to offer.

The lessons we can learn from the GP

Just as a GP relies on a solid background of medical training to support their assessment of a treatment plan for a patient, the in-house lawyer relies on their inst itutional knowledge of their business and colleagues to assess the legal input required of them.

Giving yourself or your legal team permission to share time with colleagues is the cornerstone of obtaining this knowledge and understanding.

Sian Wingate is a corporate lawyer at Powerco Ltd and a committee member of the In-house Lawyers Section of the NZ Law Society (ILANZ)

Last updated on the 3rd November 2017