Why in-house counsel must don many hats
In-house counsel is required to apply a holistic lens to the business while considering the broader economy and geopolitical sphere, according to a general counsel.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly ahead of the 2023 Corporate Counsel Summit, Katherine Stapels, general counsel at publicly listed company in the defence industry DroneShield, said that the role of general and in-house counsel is broad and requires them to “wear many hats”.
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Their role not only entails considering what legal compliance dictates for their organisation but also what the business strategy and objectives and commercial realities are.
In unison with this, they must consider the possible implications of the economic conditions and geopolitical events on the business, she said.
“Things that happen in an organisation don’t happen in the legal silo, or an engineering silo, or an operation silo,” Ms Stapels said.
“I think in terms of navigating business relationships, there’s really got to be a cross-functional team so that the business doesn’t fall into the trap of operating in silos.”
Ms Stapels and a panel of speakers will appear at the Corporate Counsel Summit 2023, where they will discuss how in-house counsel could obtain business and board management buy-in by understanding their organisation’s pressure points, overall strategy and objectives, and effectively communicate the risks and legality involved in any decision to management regardless of the overall cost of those decisions.
Becoming a confidant
When asked what areas of the business in-house counsel could become involved in, Ms Stapels said it would depend on the size and structure of the business.
“As an example, I work in what I would call a small-to-medium enterprise (SME) in the defence space,” she explained.
“In that particular context, I’m involved in all parts of the business. I’m accessible to everyone in the business. I think it’s important to have the skills to build relationships with everyone that you deal with in the business. I think it’s important for in-house counsel to position themselves so that other people in the organisation feel very comfortable having that relationship.”
Forging relationships with different parts of the organisation would allow the legal team to become a “trusted confidant”, Ms Stapels added.
This could mean that when employees face issues in the business, they would feel comfortable approaching in-house counsel to discuss the issues and find a solution, she said.
“It’s very important, in that respect, to always be open and available to pretty much everyone in the business,” she said.
Be comfortable with growth, feedback
For new entrants and junior in-house counsel, Ms Stapels suggested that they should become accustomed to and comfortable with the fact that everything may not be perfect from a legal or compliance standpoint.
“You need to be comfortable with things not being perfect,” she said.
“I think that as you step into a new role, more than likely, you’re going to uncover a lot of things that you would love to change all at the same time. But I think the key thing is not trying to change everything at the same time.”
Ms Stapels recommended that in-house counsel could focus on one issue at a time and work methodically through them based on immediate business priorities and requirements.
Adopting a “good-natured” approach to tackling and solving any problems would also be productive and helpful, she added.
Being mindful of the tone in-housel adopts while conversing with different external stakeholders is also critical, Ms Stapels noted, which is dependent on the context of the conversation and the parties involved.
“For instance, I work in an engineering company, so my conversation with someone from engineering is going to be very different to one with my internal legal team or an external legal provider,” she said.
“The legalese drops back; it’s more conversational. It’s a lot more relaxed in style. And so, I think it’s very important to get really good at reading the room and the person that you’re communicating with. Just enjoy the conversation for the good that can come out of it.”
Ms Stapels concluded by encouraging in-house counsel to be gentle with themselves and open to feedback.
“Be comfortable with continuing to grow both in terms of legal expertise and interpersonal skills,” she said.
To hear more from Katherine Stapels about how in-house counsel could bring value by helping their organisation make more informed strategic choices while remaining compliant and considering the legal risk profile, come along to the Corporate Counsel Summit 2023.
It will be held on Thursday, 25 May 2023, at Sofitel Sydney Wentworth.
To book your tickets, click here.