Navigating the Role of the Corporate Counsel: Insights from My Journey

Navigating the Role of the Corporate Counsel: Insights from My Journey

Transitioning from traditional private practice in a law firm to a successful Corporate (In-house) Counsel demands adaptation and the acquisition of new skills. In this brief article, I share my journey and lessons learned so far as a Corporate Counsel, aiming to guide fellow Corporate Counsel and those aspiring to embrace this evolving role.

Embrace the Role of a Generalist

As a Corporate Counsel, you’ll encounter a diverse array of legal issues, from employment, intellectual property, corporate and commercial transactions to litigation and dispute resolution, data privacy, tax, request for legal opinions on industry specific laws, among other things. If you have heard of the term “General Counsel” being used to address heads of legal departments, it could be stemming from the diverse legal request and corporate decisions directed at their desk.

Don’t pass on tasks because you have not done it before. I strongly believe that as a lawyer,  you have acquired the basic skills to thrive in every practice area and industry you find yourself. Combine your hard skill of excellent research and your soft skill of a superior attitude to work (diligent, determined and ready to learn) to address every challenge thrown at you. To achieve this, you will need to dedicate time to learn about your company and its business, which takes us to our lesson number 2.


Know Your Business

To be successful as a Corporate Counsel, you need to understand every aspect of your company’s business: goals; strategy; business plans; visions and challenges. Don’t be afraid or shy of seeking help from other technocrats within your organisation. What I love about the Corporate Counsel role is the advantage of working with different experts across the table for various tasks. Take advantage and learn as much as you can! Understanding your business will enable you tailor your legal advise to meet the strategic goals of the company.

Establish a Business Partnership Relationship and Earn the Trust of your Business Partners

Like it or not, other professionals have their own perception about lawyers. If you are the first Corporate Counsel, there could be some misconceptions about your role; you are more likely to be seen as the “show stopper”, the “no” department (and so forth). Building trust with colleagues is essential. Dispel misconceptions about the legal department by proactively positioning yourself as a strategic partner committed to supporting and promoting the company’s interests. It is very important that you communicate broadly and resoundingly your mission as a strategic business partner, who is “for the business” and not “against the business”. Earning the trust of your colleagues create an enabling environment for them to approach you comfortably with important matters, knowing that you are there to protect and promote the interest of the company.

Develop a Network of Peers

I call them my personal board of directors! You will need them. You will need to develop and keep up with other lawyers who can make meaningful contributions to the growth and success of your role. Keeping in touch with other Corporate Counsel /lawyers who can share their experiences with you is crucial. Trust me, sometimes, when you find yourself as the first Corporate/In-house Counsel and start off solo, there are days you may want to “exhale” and those peers will be there when you need them. Keeping a quality network of well experienced lawyers and sharing experiences can help you navigate through some of the challenges that may come with your role.

Learn to Accept Some Risk

You need to appreciate the fact that businesses thrive on taking some risks. Lawyers are trained to mitigate risk and sometimes, some of us become highly risk averse, due to our training and orientation. However, as a Corporate Counsel, you need to understand that without risk there is often a limited upside potential for the business. It is important that you appreciate the risk tolerance level of your corporate executives and advise them accordingly. Your role in risk management may only end (sometimes) with letting your corporate executives appreciate the risk that may come out from their decisions, to avoid surprises when they arise, without discouraging strategic decisions and that is just fine.

Be Simple and Concise in Your Communication

If you want to be successful as a Corporate Counsel, avoid communicating in “legalese” and communicate in simple, plain, English. One of the key skills of a Corporate Counsel is the ability to simplify complex legal issues to your business executives and colleagues.  Remember you are dealing with “real time businessmen” (as I call them) who are always on the “run”. It is important that you tailor your communication style to resonate with busy executives, ensuring clarity and brevity in your interactions.

Become Highly Visible Within Your Organisation

The more you are seen and heard by the business units, the more they will get used to working with you. Do not work in isolation. Develop a healthy professional relationship with the various business units. I have adopted a customer-service approach where I deem every business unit as my client. One thing I do is the periodic meetings with the various heads of departments to understand their specific objectives and also “catch up” on their activities.  This help me understand the areas where my department can be of help proactively.

Supporting the objectives of individual business units contributes to the achievement of the company’s overarching goals. To enhance the visibility of the Legal & Company Secretarial Department, I implement various strategies. One such initiative is the monthly issuance of “Legale Notitiam” (Legal Notice), offering engaging legal updates to employees on diverse topics. Additionally, in my capacity as Company Secretary, I provide periodic Corporate Governance Nuggets to the Board of Directors, advising them on their duties and responsibilities. These efforts reinforce the department’s role as a proactive contributor to the company’s success while fostering legal literacy and governance excellence across the company.

I believe there are many more avenues we can explore in improving the visibility of the Corporate Counsel to make it easy to work and partner with various business units and the business as a whole.

These seven lessons encapsulate key strategies for navigating the multifaceted role of the Corporate Counsel. Kindly be on the look-out for further insights from my growth and experiences in the evolving landscape of a Corporate Counsel.

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