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The importance of ‘open and honest relationships’ in-house

In 2024, communication skills and having a deep understanding of their organisation will remain vital for in-house lawyers, one GC has said.

user iconLauren Croft 06 February 2024 Corporate Counsel
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Heela Arsala is the general counsel of architecture firm Buchan. Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, she discussed negotiation and contractual clauses and what’s in store for in-house lawyers in 2024.

As the in-house legal landscape continually evolves, Ms Arsala said that black-letter legal skills remain important – but that balancing negotiation and contractual obligations with business requires both an understanding of the business and the ability to build and maintain relationships.

“I work really hard to establish trusted, open and honest relationships across any business that one works in. So, for example, one of the first things that I did when I started at Buchan was really work on my relationships. Genuine, authentic, trusted relationships. Understand people, speak to them openly, [and] build that relationship because, at the end of the day, there’s another person on the other end. And then, once you understand those relationships, those key stakeholders internally, and they trust you, they’re going to be honest with you. And once they’re honest, you can actually get through things a lot better,” she explained.


“So, I find that regardless of wearing multiple hats, regardless of being this middle person that has to work with both internal stakeholders and external, being a trusted advisor means you get to things a lot quicker, you understand things better because people are communicating with you openly. So, I find that having those authentic relationships does really work. I mean, it’s so basic, and I think we all know it, but once we put on our lawyer hat and get in there, I think we forget that at the end of the day, having a relationship is so important to avoid some of those confusions and misunderstandings.”

Moving through this year, in-house counsel will need to continue to be across environmental, social and governance (ESG); as Ms Arsala said, this trend is likely to continue.

“I think organisations really need to become more aware of their corporate behaviour because I think clients are now expecting that organisations have to hold and portray what that corporate behaviour or what those ethical values are. And it can’t just be an article published or bold branding across their websites, they actually need to live it and deliver it as part of their services, whether that be climate change [or] carbon emission or whether we’re using recycled materials or whether we’re introducing materials that are better for the environment, more sustainable,” she added.

“I think there is an expectation that that is considered, and that’s part of your fees, your scope, your service and your thinking as architects. Designing with purpose, designing with thinking and same with labour practises, and I’m seeing more and more of that. Clients want to know that you are engaging consultants internationally who are engaging with labour practices that are fair and reasonable and ethical. And I think you need to go beyond just having a policy that says we do that. You need to talk about it.

“So, there’s a lot of thinking about this; it all seems a bit too hard and overwhelming, but if you talk about it, break it up, understand it, and bring it in as part of the whole scope of services that you’re providing … I think then it becomes easier to deliver on. So, I think the trends are consistent with what we’re seeing at the moment.”

In addition to these trends, there are also a number of other elements of in-house work Ms Arsala is excited about moving forward.

“Post-COVID and post, I feel like it’s almost this rebirthing. We’ve come out into this really busy, exciting growth time. We’ve lived a number of really tough, restricted years, and we’ve survived it. And it’s almost this, we’ve come out at the other end with better perspectives, better energy, more ways to do things. And I guess, now, with the most amazing technology that’s now suddenly become available to us overnight, we can do so much more,” she concluded.

“So, for me, [2024] and the years ahead is the growth piece. I can see that there are so many more opportunities to grow any business, especially our business. Where can we go and where are we going, and what does that look like? So, for me, the most exciting thing is being involved in a business that is growing and going into new sectors and new areas and new jurisdictions. That is really exciting for me, and that gives me so much energy to stay on and keep going.”

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