Interview: Ben Foat, In-house Solicitor of the Year

Ben Foat, Post Office legal director, was named In-house Solicitor of the Year at the 2018 Law Society Excellence Awards. We speak to him about his win, his leadership, and how he is transforming his team to meet the increasing demands of the business for legal services.

Can you tell us about your legal academy?

The legal academy is part of delivering on my legal strategy for the Post Office. It’s a three-year programme aimed at making sure that the legal risks within the business are being managed by everyone, not just its lawyers. There is no point in lawyers understanding that you need to manage contracts in a certain way, unless the people who actually manage the day-to-day third-party relationships understand too.

Was it easy to sell to the business?

Solicitor of the Year In-house 2018 - Ben FoatIn some respects. In terms of buy-in, you need a really coherent project plan. It’s also about the way you roll it out. It is crucial that the training material resonates with the business and is not drafted in such a way that it only really works for lawyers.

For contract management, for instance, the training can’t be a contact law question as we know it from a law degree. Instead, my starting point in the training is: why is it important to have a contract? This helps people understand why it’s important to have a written contract, and why we don’t engage in discussions of corporate services to a third party without a contract in place.

Our public procurement training for the business was prepared principally by the in-house team, but in other areas we’ve utilised information from our external legal panel, such as on the GDPR. However, in-house really adds its value through providing bespoke examples which resonate with the business, and by understanding the issues that have come up previously.

Why was the legal department’s transformation journey needed?

First, change. The pressures on businesses and corporates have changed: the way customers behave, online journeys, the use of technology and the pace and expectation of customer needs. Consequently, legal departments also need to evolve to support their clients.

Second, legal costs. To manage legal risk, costs are expected, and CEOs and CFOs are, quite rightly, asking legal directors to justify their team’s value and contribution to the business. In short, legal departments now have to operate like a business themselves, and as such we’ve seen the rise of legal operations as an increasingly important new role.

What was your approach?

My first step was simply getting a list from the legal team setting out all of the matters they were dealing with in each area of the business; at which stage each matter was at; the associated cost; and a rough estimate of the time spent. Over the first 12 months, I learnt where the legal work was centred, what was driving it and the costs involved – you need to understand that before you can draft a legal strategy and develop a business plan.

Have there been any particular setbacks?

No major setbacks, but my advice to legal directors undertaking a similar project would be: people are your key. Legal technology is great, but it’s just an enabler. People have different approaches and reactions to change, and that’s why it is crucial to understand how you get your people on board with your legal strategy.

When I rolled out the initiatives on how to demonstrate our value, it was really important for me to have an away day with my team to get them to understand the context and hear their solutions, rather than me unilaterally telling them ‘this is what we’re going to do’.

Did you need to communicate to the business that it wouldn’t be a quick fix?

You have to take your business clients with you throughout the whole process. No business is going to wait two years for a legal department to change behind the scenes. We’ve been reporting back to the business every month consistently.

I had pretty good buy-in after the first month, because for the first time the different business areas could see the management information they didn’t have previously (such as the volume of instruction, the cost of the matters, and the resources they had on a monthly basis). This gave us buy-in to go and find the right piece of legal technology to support us.

What are the big things on the horizon for you in terms of strategic planning?

The Post Office corporate strategy is to be a commercially sustainable business with a public purpose. For me, it’s about ensuring my team understands and is delivering against the business’ commercial imperatives and drivers.

Change management is also going to be important. Many legal departments are seen as blockers, where people say you can’t do something, because the law says X. I want us to enable people to solicit the right solution that is both legally compliant and helps the business to achieve its strategic goals.

Has this helped build trust between the business and your team?

Yes, our legal department is now seen to be dealing with the broader corporate issues alongside the rest of the business. We’re not just looking at one contract in a silo without appreciating the strategic links to other areas of the business.

How important is continuous learning, both for yourself and for your team?

Absolutely critical. For me, it’s not just about complying with SRA learning requirements when it comes to the personal development plan. It is important that lawyers get rewarded, because if they are being the best versions of themselves, they feel most engaged, rewarded and recognised.

The issue of continuous development is especially important for in-house teams in general. Certainly, over the last five years, the demands that we’ve seen on our corporate clients and our businesses have changed, and we need to make sure that we’re adapting our skills (e.g. problem-solving, bringing forward solutions, being objective fact-checkers) to understand and meet our clients’ needs in the right manner.

In terms of career development, how important is it to develop yourself outside of your role?

As a legal director and in-house lawyer, I think you need a broad skill set – it’s not just about the technical legal knowledge. Making sure I bring the best version of myself to work is crucial, because my own success will contribute to my company’s success. That’s why it is important for me to be a visible LGBT+ role model – while it is outside my role, it is part of who I am.

It’s important to make sure that everyone feels that they are in a safe space where they can flourish, not in spite of their difference, but because a diversity of thought adds to discussion and produces better results.

How do you make sure diversity is really embedded in your team?

You have to lead from the top. This is a topic I’ve spoken about across the entire organisation. At our diversity and inclusion launch day, I spoke about my own story and how to inspire others to be their true selves. Setting up the LGBT+ and diversity and inclusion networks are probably among my proudest initiatives.

It’s something I encourage a lot of my team to be involved in. I strongly believe that with diversity of thought (a bit like legal risk management), you’re covering all your bases, but if you’ve just got like-minded people you’re not going to capture all of that.

How important have soft skills been in your role?

I view them as a package: you can’t be an in-house lawyer and not have the appropriate soft skills and behaviours, but equally you’ve got to have a very good technical understanding. It’s important that the business respects your legal and technical skills, but you also must be strategic, have a commercial understanding and are proportionate in your approach, so that you can manage the broad projects and processes that the business needs.

It is absolutely essential that a lawyer isn’t just someone with legal skills, but is actually a whole person. It’s the same with my team – it’s about making sure they bring all of themselves to work.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of making an Excellence Awards nomination this year?

I wasn’t actually aware that I’d been nominated initially – it was my team that put in the nomination. I understand they got feedback from a lot of my clients and peers. I haven’t seen that feedback, but clearly it must have been positive! So, I’d have to say, it’s important to have a supportive team and clients that are onboard with what you’re trying to achieve. I see my award as a recognition of the work of the entire team.

I learned about the nomination just before the full list was announced. It was lovely – my company CEO came down with a bottle of champagne.