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‘You really do pick up skill sets’: Why lawyers should consider more board work

Serving on a board can expand your skill set and set you up for leadership positions, according to this partner and board chair.

user iconLauren Croft 10 August 2021 Big Law
Nick Edwards
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Nick Edwards is a partner at Hamilton Locke and has experience on a variety of boards within the not-for-profit sector, both as a member and chair.

Speaking recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Mr Edwards shared the value of serving on a board, the skills you can learn and what it can do for your legal career.

Mr Edwards started out as a lawyer at Corrs Chambers Westgarth and found that pro bono work was not only rewarding, but valuable career experience – and from there, “fell into” board work for not-for-profits, starting with human trafficking charity Project Futures.


“[The founders] wanted to know how to best structure it to not only protect themselves, but to provide a legacy,” he said.

“I began to give them advice and I asked the firm I was with at the time, Gilbert + Tobin to assist as well. I had a partner supervising and we pulled together the constitution and the structure for that entity.

“That’s how it all started. And that was a good way for me to use the corporate skills that I had on sort of a micro level. And flowing from that, Steve and Steph asked me to join the board.”

Project Futures went from being a community start-up with events hosted at bars to a more structured organisation, organising large-scale events to raise bigger sums of money. Mr Edwards added that being on the board of a charity allowed him to share his legal skill set, both with non-for-profit founders and with those less fortunate.

“One of the things I would say for those that are considering board work: the skills you learn as a lawyer of being able to analyse, to read, to write in a particular manner is not a skillset that every person in the community has,” he said.

“A lawyer’s skillset helps to drive the governance of the organisation. It’s interesting, I think, people that have the experience within corporate law actually make very good board members, particularly on a pro bono level because they bring with them the skill sets that are inherent that they advise on, on a daily basis.”

Mr Edwards was on the Project Futures for over five years and ended up being the chair as it raised over a million dollars a year to distribute to charities in South-east Asia, as well as women’s refuge centres in Australia. Whilst Mr Edwards is currently on the board of not-for-profit KYUP! Project, he’s been on a number of other charity boards and said he’s picked up additional skill sets along the way.

“One of the things that you need to think about at a board level is the different skill sets that you need on that board,” he said.

“You really do pick up skill sets. Firstly, you have to be able to communicate around a board table. And I think that communication skill is probably one of the greatest things you pick up, being able to convey your ideas or to really analyse what people are trying to do. You need to exercise good judgement when propositions are put before the board.

“You also need to have an intellectual curiosity about what is going on and try to understand that, because if you’re going to govern that organisation, you need to understand what you’re trying to solve.”

Additionally, being on a board can “hold you in good stead” when applying for internal promotions or leadership roles at law firms, according to Mr Edwards. In particular, being on the board of a charity can lead to other roles on larger boards.

“Participating in not-for-profit boards is a wonderful first step into participating on larger boards and larger corporations. The same skillsets apply. The same skill metrics apply,” he said.

“So effectively, what you’re doing is you’re learning in a slightly different environment because more often than not, not-for-profits are much smaller. There’s probably less pressure. They don’t have shareholder issues. They don’t have market issues, but the same issues arise in terms of legal governance, people management, negotiation, communication, and discipline.”

Whilst on a board, Mr Edwards has found himself wearing two hats: one as a lawyer and one as the organisation itself.

“You’ve got your hat as a lawyer, which is to understand the corporate governance, is to understand the regulatory and the legal framework that you’re operating with as a director, as a board, and then as an organisation. So what space are you in? What are the legal specific issues arising?” he said.

“Then you have another hat which is also understanding what you are trying to solve, because most charities are trying to solve a problem.”

Mr Edwards added that a lawyer can bring other skills to the table on a board, outside the traditional legal scope.

“One of the things that a lawyer can bring to the table other than your legal skillset is understanding what that skill matrix is and ensuring that an organisation can fulfil that,” he said.

“You need leadership obviously, you need an accounting and finance specialty, you need someone that understands the legal and regulatory and probably corporate governance, risk management, people management, and then industry knowledge.

“But always take the opportunities when they’re presented to you. If I had dismissed [Project Futures’] call to help them with their charity, I probably wouldnt have been on the board and I certainly wouldnt have been currently chairing KYUP!

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Nick Edwards, click below: