Post Office general counsel Ben Foat talks to The Lawyer ahead of his workshop at the In-house Counsel as Business Partner Conference, in association with EY, explaining the key considerations for transforming the legal function.
What are the top three things businesses expect from their in-house lawyers?
A strategic business partner that sees the bigger picture and brings their whole self to the role (not just ‘a lawyer’): As a strategic business partner, they want someone that contributes to the commercial and operational discussion especially by joining the dots across the organisation that they may not necessarily be aware of so that risks previously unidentified can be understood and managed;
A solutions orientated lawyer who focuses on the solution and the pathway to that solution rather than the risk arising from the particular issue or problem;
Proportionate advice that synthesises the issue, likelihood and materiality of the risk together with the mitigation: Too often lawyers provide detailed analysis but actually the business wants to be supported to manage legal risk proportionately within the board’s risk appetite. They do not want to be briefed on every conceivable legal issue even if it may be interesting to a lawyer. Life is full of risk but what are the material risks that could prevent or limit the business’s strategic initiatives or revenue growth.
What are the top three things to keep in mind when trying to transform the legal function?
Design a strategy – this requires a vision and end goal having regard to the context or business within which you are operating. To do this you will need to understand what and how the business operates, the type and level of risks the business is running and the work flow / demand on the legal department. In developing the vision and mission you should consider what problem are you trying to address or opportunity which you want to seize. It sounds simple but the implementation of it can be challenging;
Plan the execution / implementation of the strategy – Consider “enablers” such as your people; technology; and refinement of processes. It is critically important to obtain the buy-in from senior management as well as key stakeholders across the business so that they can support what you are trying to achieve. It is also important to recognise that transformation takes time; it does not happen overnight. So, consider a three-year program of transformation in phases and utilise proof of concepts before rolling out significant changes;
People and culture – Change can be difficult for some. It is essential to get your team and the broader business to see the value of the transformation not just for the business but for them individually. Consider whether there are opportunities for career development or progression through the transformation program.
What sets working in-house apart from the rest of the legal market?
Working in-house means that you are at the coal face of industry change and evolution. Consequently, in-house lawyers arguably need a broader set of business skills than most of the rest of the legal market. These include:
- A broad range of legal technical skills as well as having a good understanding of corporate governance;
- Compliance skills including the design and implementation of compliance frameworks, policies, as well as evaluating control effectiveness;
- Business skills including how to design and execute a strategy and business plan and undertake strategic prioritisation;
- Legal operations including how to obtain, use and leverage management information, identify and appropriately on-board legal technology, and project management;
- Management skills such as people and financial management;
- Interpersonal skills including the ability to manage stakeholders and clients, challenge and resolve conflict; learn how to influence; and
- Emotional intelligence
- Leadership skills
What would you have done had you not chosen a legal career?
I am torn between two potential careers. I previously taught Law and Politics at university and found it immensely rewarding. On the other hand, I love travel and being a pilot would enable me to explore the world.
Ben Foat is part of the 60+ speakers making up this year’s speaker line-up at The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner in Association with EY on 28-29th October. For more information on the conference, a copy of the agenda, or to inquire about attending, please contact Kenan Balli on +44(0) 20 7970 4017