Corporate law has a few undeniable fundamentals. The goal for lawyers is, at all times, to prove their worth by delivering the best legal advice. However, making the jump from external to internal will present new challenges, and the road to becoming general counsel presents its own set of challenges.

One challenge is communication. A GC has to educate staff against “playing with matches”, but having an overly formal and unsympathetic manner towards non-legal staff is also not the answer. So how should GCs handle this?

“Know your audience” is a cliché, but people often forget that their audience doesn’t necessarily know their thought processes or the jargon they use. This lack of audience sympathy can lead to compliance staff presenting information in such a way that may be perfectly clear to them, but not to the members of a different department.

Christopher Stephens, Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) general counsel, also feels strongly that communication skills are a necessity. “I believe communication to be a type of intelligence because it takes a mental acuity to clearly identify and translate an idea into a message, and to pick and choose the right words and manner to present that message,” he says. “Brilliant analyses and solutions are worthless if they are not communicated well.”

And when it comes to communicating about compliance, Stan Lui, Head of Legal and Compliance, Asia Pacific, at global construction giant Hilti, advises against handing staff lengthy documents detailing regulations written in legalese. In his view, this isn’t how a salesperson or product developer best absorbs information, contending that compliance is as much about the delivery of the message as it is about the message itself.

“Be innovative in forming a legal/compliance narrative,” he recommends, stressing that a good in-house lawyer will aim to demystify the legal and compliance world with use of both words and actions. Each case is unique and deserves a specific approach, says Lui, but he does focus on some fundamentals. For example, he often attends networking events and legal summits, as this gives him an understanding of others’ experiences as well as an idea of how other legal professionals handle compliance issues. 

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Ensuring approachability is another key factor, as it means employees feel comfortable coming forward to ask, “Will this start a fire?” instead of revealing later that one might have already started. This allows GCs to prevent instead of mitigate.

A successful GC will be viewed as a trusted business partner and not as an intimidating figure who only emerges when the fire has become a conflagration.“No description of the successful lawyer’s attributes is complete without emphasising character,” as Stephens puts it. He continues, “Professional and personal integrity are essential, and the lawyer should be the corporate bellwether.”

Non-legal staff are more likely to trust the advice of an in-house counsel they view as respectable not just in the office but also outside it – in short, someone who avoids any perceived hypocrisy. In Stephens’ words, “You can’t be an upstanding professional at work, and then go out and cheat at golf or relieve your dog on your neighbour’s lawn... It’s not rocket science. Just do the right thing.”

Lui’s advice when going above and beyond is to “expand your palette”, and he recommends taking up pro bono and corporate social responsibility work. In his experience, the best method of engagement is to “get your hands dirty” and to “go to the trenches”. He suggests, for example, that in-house lawyers attend product training, sit with customer service colleagues for a day, or go do field work with sales representatives so that “in the end, your advice would carry more ‘street cred’.” 

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Inspiring legal staff as an in-house lawyer requires a different approach to that of the external counsel because the skill set that they are hoping to acquire is different. Successful in-house lawyers and law department, in Stephens’ view, should have “keen attributes, multiple intelligences and a strong compatible culture.” But what sort of intelligence is he referring to?

Stephens breaks the intelligence that legal staff should have – or his method of determining a lawyer’s intelligence – into four categories. Lawyers who have excellent communication skills have the ability to get their ideas across in a succinct and understandable manner regardless of who their audience is. “I cringe when someone says my words sound ‘like a lawyer’ or are ‘legal language’ because I struggle mightily to avoid precisely that perception,” he explains.

Traditional intellect also comes into play. Stephens notes how attending an Ivy League school or earning good grades aren’t paramount or solely responsible for making someone a great lawyer. What these show instead, is that that lawyers have the crucial “capability to learn and apply knowledge in a context”, as they should be able to “spot relationships between pieces of information and organise and apply them creatively.”

Lawyers often have to absorb and regurgitate massive amounts of material, so “the ability to distil vast quantities of information down to the essence of what’s needed in the circumstances” is vital. “Critical thinkers analyse the information presented and challenge it, identify deficiencies and ways it can be strengthened or recast,” shares Stephens.

He also noted that while “most lawyers take a passive, reactive approach to information received”, those who are smarter “take an assertive and proactive approach, applying critical thinking and good judgment, and produce stronger and ultimately more useful work product and advice.”

The fourth component of being a good GC is emotional intelligence. Stephens describes it as “the rare capacity of people to be self-aware and to realise that their own views and styles have limitations in particular contexts, and to recognise almost intuitively other people’s perspectives, emotions, circumstances, needs and motivations.”

These traits, says Stephens, are integral to in-house achievement, so those at the top should not only possess them, but inspire and instil them into their staff.

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ADB’s Stephens credits not only luck for getting him to where he is now but also other events and opportunities that were earned and created.

“Here’s the how-to: Get a good education and accept your parents’ efforts to instil a set of values and provide love and support (sheer luck). Work hard at school and in your jobs, and progress along a career path (earned). Attach yourself to mentors who provide more opportunities and support (a combination of luck and eagerness), and work harder and smarter, with your eyes open (created) to learn, grow and improve even more,” he says. 

Hilti’s Lui commends lawyers who are willing to do the work needed to climb to the top, but they also have to keep evolving and stay dedicated to remaining there, he says. Because, as he observes, what’s the point of getting to the top if you have don’t have a plan on how to stay there?

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