Interview: Chris Fox, In-house Solicitor of the Year 2019
Chris Fox won the In-house Solicitor of the Year Excellence Award last week. We speak to him about developing relationships around the business, leadership, legal strategy, and bouncing back from mistakes.
What does winning the award mean to you?
It’s fantastic to be recognised by the Law Society in this way, especially considering the outstanding work others are doing in in-house positions throughout England and Wales. There were individual elements to my submission, but it’s also a testament to the efforts of everyone in the team: Kambi’s successes over the past 12 months have only been possible because of the licences the regulatory function has secured and the work the legal and compliance functions have completed in achieving contracts with new customers and the facilitation of compliant access to new markets. I am so grateful to be part of such an awesome team!
How do you align the legal strategy of your team with the wider business? How do you adapt to its changing needs?
I joined Kambi as group head of legal and regulatory, and did not immediately sit as part of the executive management team (EMT). To facilitate a strategy of better alignment with the business and board, I knew I had to build transparency and visibility. I felt this could only be achieved by attending management meetings or a role on the EMT. I raised the same with the CEO early on and was promoted to the EMT after 12 months.
I take the view that members of the EMT are both business leaders and subject matter experts: you should contribute beyond your function. I am better invested in the company and its trajectory because I am part of broader business conversations, for example relating to the growth of HR, product and our development teams.
I have also tried to foster a culture of transparency within my team, and I share as much as possible from EMT meetings with them. I encourage an attitude of curiosity, and a preparedness to reinvent processes and systems. For example, we have recently rolled out a new structure to provide more granularity and stratification within the team, with an emphasis on clarity regarding our roles and governance framework: this should improve the efficiency with which we support Kambi’s growing commercial function.
How important is developing relationships at a strategic level so you are in a position of influence?
It’s critical, because you don’t want to just have access to information, you want to inform the underlying conversation with respect to any specific matter or issue. A lot of decisions taken by the business have a legal dimension and the potential to expose Kambi to legal risk: presence in the room is often achieved by building key relationships, therefore making it fundamental to the role of an in-house lawyer.
In my experience, the best way to establish great relationships is through listening and engagement, building credibility through the contributions you make to processes and projects. I try to give my team as much access as possible to senior stakeholders to facilitate relationship-building: this encourages the EMT to have more confidence in the broader legal department, enabling them to be served by more than just me and my immediate reports. That’s helpful for a relatively small team such as ours.
How important are presentation skills when influencing?
I think the ability to present is often characterised as public speaking, but it’s really much broader than that. For example:
- How do you articulate an argument cogently?
- How do you concisely make a point?
- How do you focus on the commercial elements of an issue?
- How do you get your message / information across with impact?
This is crucial when engaging with the EMT, as stakeholders at this level rarely have much time. I gave feedback to a team member recently on a long email they sent filled with legal language. We discussed the time pressures the EMT, and other stakeholders, are under, and the subtlety of phraseology when communicating with someone who isn’t a lawyer to convey detail in a readily understandable way. It’s helpful to think about the pressures your stakeholders are under and present yourself appropriately to manage them.
How do you handle different personalities in different situations?
You first need to be aware of the different personalities in the organisation, as it’s very easy to see the world through your eyes, and not take time to appreciate other perspectives. It’s then important to recognise the value of those alternative perspectives: “my way is the right way” can easily cloud your judgement and recognising your way often isn’t the right way is critical to good decision-making. This also makes tailoring your approach to communication easier, and it enables you to address areas where others have more expertise than you.
As a corollary to the above, it’s also important to understand when your role as an in-house lawyer can require you to assert a specific position, and judging when to balance strong and persuasive arguments with the accommodation of different approaches can be difficult. Investing in internal and external relationships provides an additional dividend here: it can make others much more tolerant of your style and the potential requirement to make robust points articulating key areas of legal risk.
What’s your advice on becoming a standout leader?
Focusing on people is critical, whether they are part of your team, board, EMT, or external to your organisation. Listening and transparency also help to build engagement and trust, which can be very important in leveraging relationships during difficult times.
Making decisions with incomplete information is also often fundamental to the role of leader: you may be asked to advise on risk without all of the facts, and you need to be able to make effective arguments to the EMT or board to set out issues and mitigation strategies in such scenarios.
Effective commercial advice that considers the true business context is also important. When advising on a legal or regulatory query, it’s not just enough to provide a summary of the law: you need to understand the issue and ask further open questions that elicit more information to set the problem within its commercial context. The legal advice you provide should then contain a series of solutions to this re-characterised problem, with accompanying business recommendations capable of implementation.
You were a strategy consultant before you became a lawyer. How did that inform your outlook and approach when you entered the law?
I don’t know if it informed my outlook, or if the approach I take to risk analysis is just part of how I view a problem.
Communication and the appropriate application of frameworks can be useful for strategy consultants, because both facilitate the consideration of solutions that may not be obvious, or superficially appear illogical or counter-intuitive.
I find that it’s helpful to deep dive into problems and apply rigorous thinking to understand all of the different drivers: this typically results in more robust solutions, and I think is consistent with what makes a good lawyer.
Do you hold any non-legal roles? How do they help with the day job?
I’m a trustee of an international charity called Lattitude Global Volunteering. I’ve found that this role helps me better understand the pressures the Kambi board face.
I’m also on the advisory boards of Winmark and Alternative Events. Being an advisory member helps me to take a macro approach to problems, as I have limited contact time with each business, and I want to assist as much as possible in that time: this encourages me to think more strategically.
How do you come back from making a mistake?
Everyone should be free to fail: it’s the only way we improve. I try to foster a culture where people are accountable for the mistakes they make and have the opportunity to learn from them. If you don’t have the opportunity to learn, you’ll make the same mistake again.
In terms of recovery, it’s much easier within a supportive organisation, but being resilient is also important. I’ve made mistakes, and there have been instances where my advice has not been listened to: perhaps because I have not been persuasive enough in making an argument in relation to the same. In either scenario, resilience and pragmatism can help you focus on the issues you’re able to positively impact or mitigate.