The great from the good: what differentiates successful in-house counsel?

What lies at the heart of a thriving legal department? What essential skills are needed to support the legal team increase their impact and influence? These were some of the questions grappled with during a World Café-style event held by LexisNexis (LN) at the conference, chaired by Sophie Gould, LN head of in-house.

It is often said that talent is an organisation’s most valuable and reliable asset – especially during times of uncertainty. This is clearly aligned with attracting and retaining the right people: top of the agenda for many senior counsel.

But what makes a talented – and successful – in-house lawyer?

The introduction of the new Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) competency regime points to the profession placing added emphasis on driving a host of skills in addition to, and outside of, being experts at the application of law.    

The continued persistence of a ‘do more with less’ culture demands a pursuance of operational excellence and a need to demonstrate the value of the legal department in more commercial terms. Of significance is the emergence of new / dual roles for in-house counsel, such as legal operations, which demand new skill sets.

The influence and strategic impact of the legal department continues to grow, with legal teams working towards creating value alongside mitigating risk. Uncertain times and increasing regulation are further raising the exposure of the legal team, giving more in-house counsel a powerful voice within their organisation.

But how to stand out from the crowd and exploit the opportunities presented?

The powerful effect of personal development

‘Take responsibility for your personal development.’ When it came to the best ways to develop and accelerate your career, this point was repeatedly made at the Café.

Practical tips discussed included: knowing your strengths; diversifying your skills; the importance of a development framework; focusing on growing as a person, not just a lawyer; continual learning; taking advantage of training and networking events from law firms, suppliers and organisations; and utilising a buddy system or getting a mentor.

Sage advice shared included ‘not to fear failure’ and to ‘invest in your personal brand’.

The value of others

The role of others in helping you stand out from the crowd was another resounding theme of the Café. Network, network, network with senior lawyers, both internally and externally. Don’t be shy! Leverage LinkedIn. Also, reflect on the networks you develop; for example, consider joining sector support networks and attend industry events.

Relationship management was seen to be critical in one’s ability to grow and stand out as an exceptional in-house lawyer. Show your human side – don’t always feel that, as a lawyer, you must be the expert; demonstrate empathy; endeavour to meet people face to face, rather than reverting to email; and remember: ‘honesty is key’.

Understand what is happening at ground level

It is no surprise that ‘knowing your business’ was considered critical to succeeding as in-house counsel. But how to have the edge and gain insight that delivers commercial impact?

Practical steps recommended here included ‘work smart’. Hot-desk in different departments to understand how they work, their challenges and build rapport with business colleagues. Go on company site tours and build your technical product knowledge by reviewing client-facing sales and marketing materials. Take it a step further and invest time to shadow non-legal colleagues in pertinent departments.

Make it a goal to proactively initiate speaking to internal stakeholders – a simple five-minute stand-up meeting on current projects, what’s coming up, challenges faced. This can reveal where legal can offer support and add unexpected value.

An up-to-date organisation chart is also an essential tool. Equally vital is being clear on the expectations of the business about what the business’ expectations are of the legal department. 

The difference between a good and great in-house lawyer

LexisNexis World Cafe 4Of the myriad of skills debated by participants, excellent communication skills topped the list. The ability to influence, persuade, ask probing questions and interpret legal jargon into layman’s terms were all essential.

Practical advice on developing outstanding communication skills focused on two aspects: active listening and the ability to read and understand your audience to tailor advice and adapt your style accordingly. These were considered to be the differentiators between a good and great communicator.

Know and link your organisation’s value drivers

On this point, many attendees agreed. To get investment for personal development, and in turn, attract and retain top talent, buy-in from the organisation is key.

Linking your organisation’s value drivers to personal development planning was considered vital. Ensure that your organisation’s values are understood. They need to be succinct and clear. Behaviours should reinforce the organisation’s values.

Practical suggestions included linking KPIs and appraisals to values. There is no ‘one size fits all’, and the values should be relevant to the in-house legal team. Linking SRA competencies to organisational values was relevant.


The World Café provided practical insights into how focused investment – time, resources and budget – into personal development can support in-house counsel hone the skills necessary to stand out from the crowd and succeed.

In turn, organisations benefit from a strong legal department able to demonstrate its value, positively influence commercial outcomes and effectively mitigate risk. 


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