‘The in-house lawyer is becoming less siloed’

24 January 2022 By Lauren Croft
Swee Yue Tan

As the role of in-house counsel evolves to be more than a strictly legal role, this award-winning lawyer said there are a number of opportunities for more varied and interesting in-house work post-pandemic.

Whilst many lawyers work in private practice before making the move to in-house work, In-house Lawyer of the Year at last year’s Australian Law Awards and senior corporate lawyer at AGL Energy Swee-Yue Tan took a slightly different path.

“The bulk of my legal experience was honed in an in-house environment, where I was often thrown into the deep end,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“What I’ve really enjoyed is being right in the middle of the action, being an ‘enabler’ and helping the business navigate through grey areas and facilitating the path to a workable solution.”

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As the global pandemic continues into 2022, Ms Tan said that the ripple effects felt in local economies and businesses would lead to “an increase in legal and cost efficiencies”, meaning in-house teams will need to be able to “adapt quickly to ever-changing circumstances”.

“With a shrinking legal budget and an ever-increasing workload, in-house teams need to keep adopting new ways of working,” she added.

“Perhaps it’s finding legal operating efficiencies like developing automation and self-service tools, or making use of collaboration platforms for communication and knowledge sharing, or taking the initiative and finding a seat at the table, so that future problems can be pre-empted and you’re not spending time mopping up a mess which could have been avoided.”

Adapting to new ways of working is just one of the ways the in-house space is evolving, with in-house counsel advising on a broader range of issues in their organisations.

“As Peter Connor, founder and CEO of AlternativelyLegal, suggested, in-house lawyers are to be ‘T-shaped’ by expanding their skills to encompass non-traditional roles and tasks, beyond purely giving legal advice and providing legal support for transactions and matters,” Ms Tan said.

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“For me, this involves acquiring business acumen by understanding the market and industry, knowing your business or organisation and understanding the language of finance. It’s also about managing (not eliminating) risk, embracing change, developing leadership and other skills, and building in some thinking time.  

“The in-house lawyer is also becoming less siloed and operates more like a GP, with a wide range of issues hitting your desk every day. In a smaller in-house team setting for example, you may constantly be required to learn new areas of law, pick up project management skills and speak the lingo, keep on top of company secretarial tasks and be an effective negotiator. Some organisations readily involve their legal team from the inception of an idea, but others may treat their lawyers as mere legal approvers.”

In addition to breaking through the barrier and providing add-on value to their organisation, there are a number of opportunities for in-house lawyers to make their work more interesting and varied as we enter a post-pandemic market, added Ms Tan.

“With organisations inevitably having to embrace a more flexible work culture post-pandemic, whilst most professionals have learned the ins and outs of participating in Teams meetings for example, in-house lawyers have to learn how to create a greater ‘presence’ in virtual settings like Teams meetings, in order to influence and lead,” she said.

“Whether you’re hosting the meeting or giving a presentation, or being a meeting participant, there are ways to make a greater connection with the other people on the call. However, nothing beats the good old-fashioned face to face interaction, so where there’s an opportunity to meet in-person (whether it be a project collaboration workshop or an offsite event), the in-house lawyer should seize it.”

‘The in-house lawyer is becoming less siloed’
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