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All by myself: how I came to be a sole counsel

20 May 2019

Bhavisha Mistry is general counsel at Mawdsleys and vice-chair of the Law Society’s In-house Division. 

 

I spent the first 11 years of my legal career working in private practice. While I was happy, I didn't really feel that I could truly be myself at work. I always felt I had to be exceptionally serious and that any attempt to be fun (in the normal sense, not the 'lawyer sense') would be frowned upon. Further, I like to see how my advice may be impacting a client.

In private practice, you don't always get to see this, because your clients don't often vent their frustrations at the fact that you have given them advice which has stopped them from pursuing their planned course of action. Similarly, they might not tell you when they didn't follow your advice, because they believed the commercial benefits outweighed the risks you have identified.

This type of feedback is helpful in building a good relationship with a client and tailoring advice in a manner that helps to add value to a client's business.

Making the move

When an opportunity came up at clothing retailer Missguided to set up its legal function from scratch, I couldn't pass it by. I had complete autonomy. For the first time, I could input into business strategy and help an organisation achieve its goals. I had heard that working hours in-house were supposed to be shorter than in private practice, but honestly, that wasn't the main attraction for me ­– I wanted to be closer to the business. Plus, Missguided looked like a really fun place to work – indeed, I soon realised that over-formality and using technical legal jargon would make me completely unapproachable to most of the business. I replaced my formal attire with Missguided clothes and changed my communication style.

Of course, being sole counsel in a large organisation was a daunting prospect. I had no other lawyers around me I could consult. I soon realised that in-house, there is an expectation that you are supposed to know everything on the law (every different type of law in every jurisdiction!). It is very difficult to tell a client "I'm afraid I can't help you actually, this isn't my speciality!" There was also the financial pressure to keep advice in-house, as contracting it out to an external lawyer would be very expensive. So, I had to be as thorough as possible in my research – PLC and Westlaw served me well.

All by myself?

It could also be a bit lonely, at first, as sole counsel. If I had had a tough day, or someone had challenged my advice, there wasn't really anyone else I could speak to in the business who could really understand. For this reason, it's easy to lose confidence, too.

I realised I needed other lawyers I could chat to. I approached other general counsels working in retail on LinkedIn and asked if they wanted to meet up for coffee. There was no agenda; it was just nice to talk with other in-house lawyers about their challenges, which I found mirrored mine. It was good to know I wasn't alone in what I was facing.

I also joined the Law Society's In-house Division to build up my network. Having other people to speak to and give me encouragement and confidence was great.

Build those relationships

One of the biggest surprises when I moved in-house was that my advice wasn't 'lapped up' right away. I realised that my advice would not necessarily be taken positively by my in-house clients – some already had a plan of action in mind, and if I gave them a list of legal obstacles as to why they couldn't proceed on a matter, I could have a battle on my hands.

I had to learn how to persuade and influence my clients to take my advice, and how to get my points across. The way to do this was by building relationships.

In private practice, it can be easy to forget that our clients may not have any legal understanding or training. Building a relationship with them can help you identify the gaps in their knowledge and/or experience. Ultimately, you must tailor your approach to each client.

I took every opportunity to meet my clients face to face, if possible, or speak to them over the phone. Meeting your client in person helps you to figure out what they are about personally; you get to know their interests, their goals and objectives personally and professionally. You don't necessarily find all this out in an email.

I also found it helped to show clients some of my personality, too – even if it was just telling them what I watched on TV the night before. What you see is what you get with me, and when I have shown my true personality, I think I get better results.

If you build the relationships, people are going to come to you for advice, which gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how good you are. You don't gain trust by telling people you're great; you gain it by demonstrating you're great. This was a fundamental lesson I learned moving in-house; but, as lawyers, we aren't trained this way.

One of the other lessons I've learnt in-house is that no one likes essays and, certainly, your advice should be straight to the point. If you've done your homework and know your stuff, there'll be no need to send long, waffling essays to your client – believe me, they will go down like a lead balloon. Your advice should be succinct, clear and straight to the point. You're advising, not bamboozling.

Fashion to pharmaceuticals

After three and a half years at Missguided, I moved on to pharmaceuticals company Mawdsleys and I definitely had to adapt. Pharmaceuticals is a more formal and regulated industry than fashion. My colleagues are aware of the regulations governing pharmaceuticals, so in a sense it has been easier to give advice, as they are used to regulation. I am also dealing with older and more experienced people – my emails are a little longer and my advice more reasoned.

At Missguided, my clients just wanted a yes or no answer. At Mawdsleys, they may want a 'why' too, so they can understand my advice for their own benefit and translate it for their own teams and customers.

But it wasn't a huge culture shock, really – all the skills you gain working in-house are transferrable. For me, it boils down to the basics – building relationships with colleagues and clients, getting to know them personally and tailoring your advice to each individual.

Prepare yourself

If you are considering a move in-house, there are some things you can do to ready yourself.

  • Practise your interpersonal and communication skills – get to know your clients better. Become more relatable. Learn about their interests
  • Think about how you might tailor your advice to a particular audience
  • Practise simplifying the advice you give – can you condense to a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer? Re-read your advice – are you clear in what you are saying? Clients want a simple answer
  • Be proactive in building your network of in-house lawyers
  • Perhaps most importantly, think about whether it really is the right choice for you. If you're happier working alone, getting on with the legal work, then an in-house career probably isn't for you.

 

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

Bhavisha is hosting an informal networking drinks reception for in-house lawyers on Wednesday 5 June in Manchester at Weightmans LLP. Email priya.krishnan@lawsociety.org.uk to book your place.

Our 2 day In-house Division annual conference runs from Tuesday 18 June and Bhavisha is chairing day 2 on Thursday 19 June. Our 2019 London conference focuses on advancing the role of the in-house lawyer

Explore our In-house Division community

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About the author

Bhavisha Mistry is general counsel at Mawdsleys and vice-chair of the Law Society's In-house Division.

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