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The Alchemists

There are few roles in a legal career as rewarding, as stimulating and as varied as being an in-house lawyer, says Paul Gilbert. To work at the heart of all meaningful policy, process and strategy in the public sector or within a business or an institution is a privilege and a wonderful opportunity to add value…But not every in-house lawyer fulfils the promise of this great opportunity. So what sets apart a great in-house lawyer from the crowd? And how can you aspire to be such a person?

I believe there are ten characteristics that are exhibited by great in-house lawyers. I base this judgement partly on the experience of working with many hundreds of in-house lawyers over ten years as a consultant to in-house teams and as a commentator on legal services generally, partly on what people now tell me they believe indicates greatness and partly on what the in-house lawyers’ own clients and colleagues tell me.

However if you know anything of my work you will also know that there will be no rocket science in the words that follow; no impossible ambition, or secrets to unlock, no magic elixir to have to discover. It is all frankly very straightforward, but in a way this is the essence of greatness; it is something that is within all of us, something that we can recognise for ourselves, but something that we cannot always fulfil.

In this short article I must apologise if the constraints of brevity somewhat belittle the tasks, but I genuinely believe that it is possible for every in-house lawyer to aspire to be considered a great in-house lawyer.

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This is not a false promise, but it does rely on a kind of alchemy; for my ideas are simple constructs that are obvious to all. The challenge for you is whether you can work with them, knowing they are freely available and simple materials and then turn them into something special in your world?

The ten ideas are as follows:

  1. Be true to your profession: a lawyer’s duties always transcend the merely commercially expedient; you must live up to the profession’s traditions of integrity, honour and incorruptible honesty without ever wearing it as an arrogant badge that identifies your separateness rather than your inclusiveness.
  2. Make the simple things simple, make the complicated things simpler still: you are not paid to make this difficult, costly or prolonged. Use your skills to navigate the rocks and the reefs to find the safe but most expeditious route to a satisfactory conclusion. Be valued for not pointing out the issues, but for finding ways to resolve them.
  3. Understand your organisation like no other and be passionate about its place in the world: your unique value as an in-house lawyer is that no-one combines your knowledge of your business or institution with your expertise; it should ensure that your deep appreciation of the people, policies, processes and politics of your world results in advice and a service that is forensically relevant and supportive. Do this and be passionate about it too because your enthusiasm for what your business does will be infectious and encourage your colleagues to involve you at all the key moments.
  4. Keep commitments: commitments kept build trust. You are not valued for what you know, but for the service you provide, so show energy and direction and allow your colleagues who do not share your technical expertise to instead see value in the way that you work.
  5. Treat all issues on their merits and do not have favourites, do not play politics: a very significant author Roger Fisher (who wrote “Getting to Yes” among very many excellent works) once said “never be unconditionally trusting, but always be unconditionally trustworthy”. It is an elegant phrase to describe a difficult concept, but retaining an impartial perspective will help others to build trust and confidence in your judgement and will allow people to come to you with issues without fear that you will make political capital from their discomfort.
  6. Focus on genuine priorities: You will always be busy (probably too busy) and may never have the time to do everything that ideally should be done; so you must prioritise and focus on the things that matter the most. Remember always that relationship management is not about pleasing people, but about doing the right things against well-managed expectations. To back up your judgement therefore you must also have the means to report your priorities and to be open to the feedback of colleagues who would like to challenge how you have ordered your activities.
  7. Know how to pre-empt, influence and persuade: soft skills like these do not always occur naturally…not as much as we would hope they do anyway; so make sure there is time for your personal development too. Do you have a mentor? Who are your influencers and how can you learn from them? Your success will ultimately depend on your ability to carry people with you and for you to be able to influence the right course to take. These are skills you must practice and hone.
  8. Be a teacher, not just an oracle: it will always be tempting to be the oracle, the font of all legal wisdom; but the essence of such a role in reality is that it makes you a bottle-neck for your colleagues and is dangerously inefficient as a model for the delivery of legal services. Your challenge is to become a teacher; someone imparting knowledge so that colleagues and process take up the burden of the more routine management of legal risk.
  9. Make no assumptions: because assumptions are lazy and in the end can be made by anyone. As mentioned already in this article your unique advantage as an in-house lawyer is that you should have access to all key people and information in your organisation. There is therefore no need for you to make any assumptions about anything. In these circumstances as soon as one hears “but I assumed that…” One might as well have heard “I could not be bothered to check”!
  10. Present and communicate as if every utterance matters: being clever and engaged and thoughtful will be important characteristics of any successful in-house lawyer, but being understood is perhaps most important of all. Communication can never be taken for granted…what you say, when you say it, how you say it, who you say it to will all be critical to your success. In the end the prizes go not to who knew the most, but who could impart their ideas most effectively.

So there you have it, the essence of greatness in an in-house lawyer condensed to a few simple points. Ten ideas not one of which is out of reach for any of us; ten ideas that you can mix, match and fold into your way of working.

Ten ideas to practice your kind of alchemy as you aim to fulfil your potential.

Paul Gilbert is Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel (, the specialist management and skills training consultancy for lawyers.

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