Article by: Courtenay Zajicek, Committee Member, ACC Australia Sole Legal Officer Special Interest Group
I’m the sole in-house counsel for a retail food business and spend my days juggling multiple practice areas and topics (a “jill of all trades but an expert in none”)! I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in this and that I’m not the only one who has been asked by a friend to write their will or manage their property transaction or by a colleague to give advice in a highly specialised and unfamiliar legal practice area that I haven’t looked at since uni (*cough* tax and constitution law *cough*), because all lawyers do these things, right? Wrong! So, how do we manage the expectation from others (particularly our employer) to “know all the laws” or not brief out specialist work? Spoiler alert, unfortunately I don’t have the magic answer, but if you do, please share your secret with me! Until then, I wanted to share some of the things that have helped me along the way.
- Set Clear Expectations
At the start of an in-house role (actually, even before that, at interview stage) I try to be really clear on boundaries and expectations. I use questions like “will I have budget to seek technical legal advice externally”, “what key deliverables do you expect from the role in the first 6 months” and “how does the business currently manage its legal support” to help understand this. I also give examples of the areas I don’t have specific experience in that might impact the business (after having researched them thoroughly of course), for example “I can see the business has reported an increased focus on embracing technology to enhance customer experience, which will have privacy impacts. If customers are based in the EU, the GDPR will apply, which is a technical area that needs specific advice”. Admitting knowledge gaps so early to a prospective employer can be confronting, but I’d prefer to be clear up front on limitations and where extra support will be needed and not get the job rather than starting with a business and not having the resources or support to do my job effectively later! Also, despite having a strong commercial, strategic and enterprise focus (see point 2), I’m still very clear up front that I will be “wearing different hats” from time to time and that the business needs to understand what my duties and obligations are (unfortunately our business colleagues haven’t sat through the hours of legal ethics CPD’s that we have)!
- Be Commercial, Strategic & Enterprise Focuses
I try to bring a commercial, strategic and enterprise leadership focus to all of my stakeholder interactions (like making “non-legal” contributions where they add value and being part of the business by “getting out in the field” and being visible). When I’m seen as a business partner who can bring this level of commercial value, leadership, and application to the business specifically (rather than delivering set pieces of legal advice that they can get from a private practice law firm) there seems to be a clearer understanding internally that I am a true generalist. This in turn supports me get the resources I need in areas I’m less experienced in to check and confirm the technical points, because the business sees that this frees me up to keep adding the commercial and strategic value. A key watch-out here though of course is not to blur the lines and fall foul of our ethical and professional duties and obligations and legal professional privilege (refer to this great article for more on this)!
- Budget, Budget, Budget!
I try to build as much into my budget as I can for the likely topics that I’ll need external support on (within reason of course) because I’ve never been asked to “please explain” a budgeted expense that I no longer needed! Having the commercial, strategic and enterprise focus discussed in point 2 helps me predict the areas of the business that might need this level of support. For example, if we’re looking to introduce biometrics into the business, that’s going to need an increased privacy focus to ensure we’ve considered all requirements.
- Join Industry Bodies
When we work in-house, particularly as a YOLO (you’re the only legal officer) or in a small team, there’s likely to be a lack of specific legal resources (like research materials, case summaries and legal technology) because those are not the core purpose of the businesses we work in, and the available resources are rightly put towards core business operations. This is why I have found joining industry bodies (like ACC Australia) so incredibly valuable as I can access webinars, articles, templates and materials (which are often complimentary when you’re a member). These materials help give me a top-level understanding of key changes and topical areas that might impact our business so that I can manage business expectations and build additional anticipated spend into our budget (see point 3)! For example, when the GDPR changes were generating increased focus, I anticipated that we would likely need some specialised technical advice in that area well in advance of it being introduced. This early “heads up” gave me enough time to manage business expectations and build a case for resourcing but also gave me enough top-line detail to give a clear and concise brief externally (saving time and money)!
One of the things I love most about the in-house legal community is how generous everyone is with their time, knowledge, and support. Let’s keep that support going, what are your top tips to manage business expectations to “know all the laws”?
The Sole Legal Officer Special Interest Group, colloquially referred to as ‘YOLO’ (you’re the only legal officer), is a network designed to support particularly sole in-house counsel to gain additional support, benefit from tailored learning opportunities and network with other lawyers who might be in a similar position. If you are interested in participating in the special interest group or contributing ideas, please contact email@example.com.