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Putting personal development at the heart of a successful in-house career

Along with a cohort of in-house champions here at Irwin Mitchell, I recently had the pleasure of attending LBCambridge, a dedicated two-day residential training course developed by people with intimate knowledge of what makes great in-house lawyers and in-house teams. I wanted to take this opportunity to share my experiences and explain why this is a ‘must attend’ conference for lawyers new to in-house positions, as well as those in-house lawyers who would like a comprehensive refresher on skills and issues relevant to the sector. First of all, let me set the scene.

Irwin Mitchell has been proud sponsors of LBCambridge since its launch in 2006 and we continue to support and attend the events, along with a selection of our in-house clients, which are held every April and September through their Spring and Summer school. It is a key part of our IM Connect programme and it has been our privilege to help steer this event through more than 10 years of continuous development so that it remains as fresh, insightful and generous as it did back in 2006.

The conference is held at the picturesque and inspirational Queens College in Cambridge, the ideal retreat from the stress and strains of everyday life in the office. Around 30 UK-based and overseas in-house counsel ranging from 1-2 years PQE right the way up to General Counsel and Head of Legal attend the conference, and April saw representatives from the likes of Royal Mail, Sony, Tesco, Mercer, HSBC, Santander, Henry Boot, Sodexo, British Council, JLL and others.

One of the main appeals of the conference is the access it offers to a group of ‘Wise Owls’ all of whom are significant senior in-house lawyers in their own right and who give up their time to share their insight, wisdom and experiences of the challenges facing in-house lawyers on the path to demonstrating value and achieving both personal and team success. Their efforts are supported by nationally and internationally renowned speakers across different business disciplines.

The course is underpinned by a case study, typically featuring a busy in-house department (LBC Holdings) that is grappling with issues of priority, profile, value and an ever increasing demand for their time. In this particular case, the company was in transition and the legal team needed to change and adapt. We worked through and debated some of their issues and concerns which the majority of in-house teams today experience and ultimately have to manage.

Having arrived at the College on Sunday evening and settled in, we were welcomed by Paul Gilbert, LBC Wise Counsel chief executive who introduced the case study, Wise Owls, presenters, guests and sponsors (made up of Irwin Mitchell, LexisNexis and Osborne Clarke). Paul also set the scene for a debate on current and pressing challenges facing in-house teams which would form the basis for deeper discussions over the following two days. Key issues highlighted by those in the room included:

  • Stepping beyond day-to-day duties to make a more valuable contribution (21%)
  • Balancing your role as a commercial facilitator vs. risk and compliance (19%)
  • Doing more with less and how this is possible (17%)
  • How can I be more influential in my role? (15%)
  • What is the purpose of an in-house legal team? (9%)
  • Personal transition to becoming a more successful lawyer (9%)
  • Career development in flat structures / small teams (4%)
  • Building strong relationships when we are not together as a team (4%)
  • How should we measure and demonstrate our value? (2%)

Monday morning kicked off with some group development and discussion led by the Wise Owls on key themes including: defining the in-house role; getting on top of work-in-progress reports and understanding how best to use them to manage time and resources; identifying and building relationships and influencing strategies aligned to purpose; and delivering results / ensuring that value is articulated and that it is also aligned to purpose.

In the first of several renowned external speaker slots, Fiona Penhallurick (businesswoman, lawyer, mediator and trustee), who as well as managing a team of in-house counsel has also undertaken roles as company secretary and managing director across a diverse range of sectors in the past, took to the stage. Through Fiona, we explored the perspective of the senior executive when it comes to the role of in-house legal services, talent management and proactive career progression.

Delegate discussion followed, focusing on how to manage the expectations of colleagues, meeting the needs of the organisation, ensuring we maintain good boundaries and look after our resilience, balancing commerciality with the wider interests and demands of our organisations as well as the opportunity this reflection period presents to help develop a broader, richer and more satisfying career.

Next up was freelance leadership and expedition consultant Justin Featherstone MC, who shared his thoughts through a story of effective leadership and teamwork from an unlikely group of civilians who were able to reshape his perceptions of leadership in a profound, emotional and inspiring way. Key themes concentrated around the importance of having a strong set of values, principles and standards of behaviour at the very heart of leadership e.g. building a community, respect for others, serving others, fairness, and honesty.

The formalities of day one closed with time for reflection including: how we can develop our roles in terms of personal purpose, resourcefulness and well-being; how can we create an environment in which we can thrive i.e. what do we need from our colleagues, from relationships with external advisors and what technology solutions we already have and/or need to support this; how we should align and partner with other key support functions in the business such as finance, compliance, procurement and HR, etc; and how we should encourage qualities of resourcefulness and leadership to ensure our success both now and in the future.

Delegates were offered the opportunity for short and confidential one-to-one mentoring conversations with the Wise Owls – a great use of time for the delegates and something I personally took up, spending some valuable time with Fiona Penhallurick. After a restful break (and catching up on a few emails and calls!) we all reconvened for dinner and drinks in the candlelit splendour of the Old Hall, a fantastic opportunity to get to know the delegates in a relaxed and social environment.

Tuesday was all about the personal journey kicking off in the form of an interview with Joanna Day, mum of four and the second most senior lawyer at Santander – talk about ambition and challenging the status quo! It was a privilege to hear her incredible and extraordinary career journey from unpromising beginnings through to one of the top in-house legal jobs in a major international bank. We explored her experiences (both the ups and downs) and the skills and resourcefulness she considered essential and which contributed to her success.

The Wise Owls facilitated a discussion focusing on essential soft skills for in-house lawyers and the practical ways these skills can be developed through a ‘change curve’ and why the likes of coaching and mentoring is key and fundamental. This was a good opportunity to consider personal development in detail and plan short, medium and long term development steps. Sponsors also shared best practice in terms of how they develop talent in their own business.

To close the day and the course, Charles Grimes, one of the UK’s leading experts in team dynamics and personal motivation, ran an interactive session focused on communication, soft skills and behaviours. Exercises were designed to show how individuals think and work in different ways, e.g. handling conflict, bringing out the best in oneself and others, maximising the value of team working, running effective meetings, communication and relationship building skills.

Ahead of the conference, delegates were asked to complete an online self-assessment insights questionnaire which determined which colour energy we sat in and how the four colour energies can be utilised to build a fully functional and successful team, e.g. Blue (balanced, objective, detached); Green (still, tranquil, reflective); Yellow (cheerful, uplifting, buoyant); and Red (positive, affirmative, bold).

In summary and from my personal perspective, the course provided real valuable insight into the future role and make up of an in-house lawyer. It brings together a wise and generous faculty of presenters and facilitators to share career-shaping insights in a unique and beautiful setting and should be seen as a “must do” event for in-house lawyers to get in-depth, insightful and current skills development.

Published: 24 July 2017

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Summer 2017

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Rob Cowling