Navigating a ‘greenfield’ role in-house
Taking on a “greenfield” corporate legal role can be a daunting and, at times, overwhelming vocational path. But, as one award-winning legal counsel says, it is also a “fantastic opportunity” to set up a legacy within a business.
Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Modaxo and Trapeze Group senior legal counsel Emilie Franklin – who won the TMT Lawyer of the Year category at the 2023 Corporate Counsel Awards – reflected on the experience of being in a “greenfield” role (i.e., an in-house legal job where a business has not previously employed a lawyer).
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When asked about the immediate duties for counsel stepping into greenfield roles, she said assessing business risks is the first port of call.
What she has done in the past, Ms Franklin detailed, is have meetings with relevant internal stakeholders and ask questions about their perceived biggest legal risks, or previous actual risks, and how legal could help make processes more efficient. From there, she determined lists of priorities for training, precedents, policies, or other necessary actions.
“Once you understand the top priorities, you can go back to the business with a summary of what has come out and then work towards [the priorities] at a higher level,” she explained.
Creating a legal intake system, she posited, is a “very easy way” to manage incoming work and allows one to start collecting data.
And, Ms Franklin added, if one does eventually require additional resources, a strong case is already being built for why that is and how it can help with the prioritisation of work.
Moreover, she went on, curiosity – a trait in-house lawyers have spoken of frequently in conversation with Lawyers Weekly of late – is especially pertinent in these kinds of roles, given that one is entering an environment in which there “isn’t much knowledge” about compliance or risk issues, and thus understanding what is happening across the business is paramount.
One challenge that greenfield legal counsel have to contend with, Ms Franklin noted, is ensuring that colleagues appreciate that the lawyer – whose presence has not been felt before – is there to help and that when change is made, it strikes the right balance between implementing necessary shifts versus being too disruptive.
When she has made change, she recalled, she has floated those ideas with internal stakeholders and ensured her direct report was on board.
“Having champions when you do implement change and knowing you’ve got support [is critical],” she said.
“There are always going to be people that are hesitant to change, so it’s [necessary to] break down and understand from them why they’re hesitant and why they may not want to change, then selling the benefits to them rather than forcing it.”
Where one is looking to undertake substantial change, Ms Franklin continued, trialling that change can be a necessary step so that positive test cases can be pointed to as being useful and worthwhile.
“It’s about gradually implementing the change as you need and see fit, and doing it by prioritising,” she said.
“It’s also about trying to understand what works best for each stakeholder and then leveraging that to get a seat at whatever table you’re trying to get a position at.”
Going into a role where there has been little to no legal influence, Ms Franklin mused, can be both overwhelming and isolating.
In response, she advised, one should reach out to other corporate counsel for connection, conversation, and community. Additionally, they should leverage the firm, or firms, the business has previously engaged to discuss pain points and the management of overflow work.
“Most firms, these days, are very happy for you to pick up a phone and just run past a general question without charging you,” she said.
Ultimately, Ms Franklin espoused, taking on a greenfield role is a “fantastic opportunity” to put in place certain structures and scoping from the ground up.
On a personal level, she espoused, one can grow “very quickly” because of the need to keep pace with regulatory and/or business change while simultaneously servicing the business and putting in place the frameworks to ensure one’s role is more efficient.
Greenfield lawyers are, she proclaimed, “one of a kind”.
“It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it offers so many opportunities, and I think it’s really exciting when you put something in place and you can see the outcome and achievement – you’re setting up a legacy going forward,” she said.
This transcript from this podcast episode has been edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full episode with Emilie Franklin, click below: