In praise of nosy lawyers: delivering business solutions to legal problems

LMS lawyers are a breed apart, operating very differently from their colleagues in private practice. Nicola Walsh has worked on both sides of the fence and her observations demonstrate how the two different approaches complement each other when a client needs a practical business solution to a legal problem.

For Nic (Nicola is very much her ‘Sunday name’), being the lawyer in a room full of scientists developing healthcare products was the perfect opportunity to learn how the business works. As an in-house lawyer, building as deep an understanding as possible of the business drivers and the appetite for risk makes you more useful, more effective in your guidance and ultimately more efficient. In private practice this level of insight is a rare luxury.

I got to be really nosy – ask lots of questions and clarify anything I didn’t understand. There’s no point being shy, and to be honest I’m too interested to let that worry me. Coming from private practice, in-house life can be quite a culture shock. For the first few weeks I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights, but you quickly learn to let the conversation flow. That way, you start to understand the culture and it is easier to ask a question. Of course there are times where really creative thinking is going on so it would be annoying to interrupt, in which case I make a note and take it offline. Most people are pleased that someone is interested in what they do. An IP lawyer I used to instruct wanted a factory tour to better understand my company and our products – this is rare as it is hard to justify spending this time on something that isn’t directly billable.

As an in-house lawyer you have to play the long game, and know that your fact-gathering and efforts to immerse yourself in the business will pay off in efficiency and effectiveness further down the line.

To get to the root of the living, breathing company your stakeholders are key. You can’t just work in a silo, you have to talk to people and understand the pain-points, soak that up.

Nic sees mutual respect as key to the success of an in-house lawyer.

The experts in marketing, for example, know what they’re doing so you can’t let yourself become the copywriter. If you ‘grab the pen’ it won’t work. On the other hand you don’t want anyone to feel as though they have to ‘get around the legal wall’ to get their messages out to the market. Sometimes this is about using the right language, being clear that you are only interested in providing solutions. Instead of saying "you can’t say that’" you learn to ask helpful questions: do we have the right data? What caveats do we need in place?

Nic loved the intellectual stimulation and variety offered by private practice but moved on as she never felt able to get close to her client.

LMS is the best of both worlds. I get the variety of private practice as well as the intimacy of an in-house role, and my clients value the breadth of experience that brings. Private practice is all about the law. You don’t have time to get close to the business so you are offering an opinion not a solution. Then, because you aren’t close enough to understand all the context you have to include a lot of content to cover yourself for every eventuality. This is inefficient for your client, who then has to read and absorb all the advice before working out how to apply it to their business.

But how does this work in the new virtual office environment, where you can’t immerse yourself in the client’s business in quite the same way?

It depends, you have to work out how to get the best from different stakeholders. I used to be able to go to their desks, now the equivalent is probably the quick instant message or phone call to keep it informal – make sure you get heard without being overly intrusive.

At Deloitte Legal we combine the in-house legal expertise of our managed services with the specialist advice of private practice and the business and technology insight of consultancy to provide a truly integrated solution to legal problems.

People like Nic are at the heart of what we do.

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