Commercial lawyers operate at the intersection of business and law and often deal with a diverse spectrum of stakeholders, who have their own distinct priorities.Beginning and navigating an in-house career, therefore, can often be confusing.
So we spoke with Harry Borovick - Senior Legal Counsel, LiveRamp who made the switch from a law firm trainee to a commercial legal leader whilst also a visiting lecturer at the University ofLaw, Bloomsbury - where he trains the next generation of legal professionals and influencers.
For the 3rd episode of LegalMatters bySpotDraft, he points to the tenets that determine his own in-house success, talks about changes in institutional legal training, and guides us to how leaders and young professionals alike can start their in-house careers on the right foot.
In-house is really about asking the right questions and finding the right answers rather than your trajectory or the amount of time billed. In-house, the right solution rarely arises because you gave it exactly “X” numbers of working hours to solve it.
Particularly when I was more junior, I was maybe slower than some of my colleagues. However, once I made the move in-house and was not constrained by billable hours, I could put in the extra time without worrying about whether my time would be written off. I was able to provide more commercially useful solutions for the business, compared to private practice approaches, with practical (rather than theoretical)application. I think that's one of the reasons I was able to progress in my in-house career relatively quickly.
While both in-house and private practice lawyers provide counsel, only the former can really witness how their inputs are put into application. That opportunity, to be completely involved from conception to execution, was a big driver for me.
In my experience, the difference is mostly from the standpoint of commercial application. Lawyers on both sides should develop expertise in their legal domain, but in-house lawyers are able to understand and accommodate business perspectives versus only providing legal counsel.
Law firms are great places to seek legal advice. They also generally attract the best and brightest (for good reason), but they often miss out on the advancements in workplace culture. This might, in some instances, lead to a higher churn-rate in employees. The most prominent difference, however, is that law firm business models are typically reliant on their employees’ billable hours but the work of an in-house team hinges on business requirements and how effectively their legal advice can be practically implemented or applied.
For legal teams to make a direct commercial impact, they need to be involved at the early stages of each discussion which could conceivably require later-stage legal advice.
Previously I worked as a Legal and RegulatoryCounsel within a highly regulated gaming industry. There, the legal team assisted the business when they were going into newly regulated territories.
The business would actively pitch on the company's ability to swiftly secure regulatory licenses and authorizations. So, the legal team’s skillset becomes something that the business could actually leverage to drive sales, rather than an obstacle to be overcome.
I realized that there is the possibility for great appreciation of legal functions, especially from sales teams, if by being involved at an early stage, legal can support sales strategy and pitches from conception, rather than pitch on one basis and have to come back for iterations.
This is how I build “commercial awareness” - by working with people who are actually responsible for bringing in the money that drives the business, from the earliest stages of a commercial process.
This involvement can help in a lot of ways.For example - members of the legal team might have an insight into the restrictions of other operational or product teams that may be unknown to the sales teams. This common legal thread across diverse business functions means that in-house lawyers can support sales teams to set holistic and achievable commercial expectations.
Naturally, having a transparent and collaborative communication process in the early stages is crucial. It can enable legal teams to be the facilitator of commerce - bring about a cohesive understanding of what is actually deliverable and align sales strategies with that understanding, while also helping the teams focused on service delivery by providing them with knowledge on what is expected of them by other business functions (which may not have been directly communicated).
The biggest challenge in a relatively nascent legal function is getting the existing stakeholders to trust your abilities and processes. Often, they have their way of doing things and were maybe not as used to relying on a regular, internal, legal function to improve their own workflows and closing rates.
If a client has a dedicated legal function and you don’t, that can immediately put you at a disadvantage when you enter a negotiation. Business teams won’t necessarily have the regulatory and legislative understanding to make strong arguments against protecting their interest, nor the willingness or budget to seek outside counsel.
This is where legal teams can provide true added value- by reducing friction, accelerating the negotiation process, and in turn enabling better business.
You have to be the kind of lawyer who enjoys jumping on a phone call with the client’s legal or commercial team and involving yourself in those discussions instead of simply providing advice or feedback to your commercial colleagues, waiting for them to communicate with the client, and then waiting for a response.
This inevitably also means that you take away some of the workload from non-legal teams and facilitate smoother workflows.
The day-one goal for an in-house legal leader is - identifying the primary stakeholders. You can split these up into two factions. First, your primary instructors - the ones who will direct you, and set targets, and second, your internal facilitators - ones who will help you get from A to B more seamlessly.
There may or may not be an intersection between your instructors and facilitators. Usually, a sales professional or board member may understand key business deliverables, but will not have the same insight about the implications and implementation of the more technical elements.
In that case, your facilitator is someone with technical knowledge who can get you up to speed with the details (and micro-details) of how the product works and what the main obstacles are. For example, this could be your CTO or a product manager.
The second thing is to do a clean-sweep review of all the existing documents, policies, and precedents to understand the level of legal service the business has received to date and identify if there are any holes in the system. This can be burdensome, but definitely worthwhile as an internal compass for prioritization.
Do a gap analysis and understand what the company is missing on an immediate basis and form a structure of intervention to prevent foreseeable obstacles. External counsel can be a useful tool and safety net for this kind of exercise. Doing this helps you set your budget and operational expectations.
The final point would be - if you already had a legal function that you're integrating into, don't underestimate how much you're going to need those colleagues and how much time you should invest in them -personally and professionally. If you’re starting up a team - don't underestimate how much time or resource you're going to need for your new hires. Make sure that your hiring procedure is well thought out and includes scope for development and training.
The simplest thing that technology can do for in-house lawyers is to help bring accountability and visibility into the work they do. Since their work is unlike that of other business teams, there is often a lack of understanding regarding where lawyers spend their time and conversely on what value they bring to the table.
Legal technology helps businesses visualize the scope of the work and quantify, in understandable terms, the value that is brought by legal teams.
For in-house roles, effective communication and collaboration matter. This can be significantly facilitated by legal technology. Take for instance - digital knowledge bases and their ability to make knowledge transfer simpler, or document inventorization a lot more effective.
Legal teams are generally a little behind in technology usage compared to other business teams. Most businesses in the technology space have been happy to use Slack, Zoom, and many more coming-of-age tools straight from the get-go, whereas legal teams have been forced (or chosen) to work with manual filing systems because technology in these domains may have been considered a cost pressure.
It isn’t a sustainable approach for the longterm, but thankfully this perception is also gradually changing.
Usually, the concept is - if you want a better work-life balance, you go in-house. And if you care more about money, you join or stay in private practice. But there is also a monumental market shift taking place, particularly in the tech sector.
The general motivations have changed. Now, it is not just about work-life balance, but also about a sense of involvement and ownership. When you prefer a less hierarchical, more collaborative, and accountable workplace structure, you are likely to be most suited to go in-house - particularly in the technology space.
We've seen in the past few years a shift bylaw firms trying to fight toe-to-toe with this psychological change by simply increasing junior and mid-level salaries. But they’re finding it a real challenge as they cannot get past their innate hierarchies and structural models.
Typically, in law firms, the junior lawyer or trainee is rarely working at the board level with the client because normally the partner wants to do it themselves and ring-fence that relationship.
Within just the past five years, I have seen job adverts for in-house roles shift dramatically towards pitching based on company culture and quality of work/collaboration rather than simply work-life balance. The reason for that is - lawyers in many sectors, for example - at investment banks or management consultancies - may end up working as long hours as someone in a private practice law firm. The idea then is to leverage a positive work culture to pad their experience.
In my experience, companies in the technology space care more about cohesive work culture. For lawyers, this means that what is important is whether you're the person that other internal stakeholders are comfortable coming to seeking advice, rather than your years of qualified experience. This is often why junior lawyers get the opportunity to work with much more senior stakeholders than they would if they were dealing with clients from a private practice perspective.
At least in the UK, the typical law school curriculum is improving. There is a growing emphasis on improving commercial awareness, by integrating legal training with business-oriented modules. For example, offering combined masters in legal practice and business. And that, I think, is really important.
Fundamental business skills like the ability to read a balance sheet, make people better commercial lawyers, irrespective of if that is central to their role. When they are interacting with the business stakeholders who rely on those tools or those key business elements, they can understand their demands better and provide better counsel.
Where legal education could improve is - by offering more mixed legal courses with specific industry focuses.
For example - if you have always aspired to be a technology commercial lawyer, your normal law school practice, plus a combined course around coding, marketing or people management could better equip you for your career.
For law students, understanding what key concerns are from a practical business standpoint is essential. But in most cases, the only time you get exposure to that is when you're already in the field as a practicing lawyer. That makes it much harder because you are playing catch up.
While the U.S. has an education structure that allows students to do a streamlined major and an interest-based minor, in theU.K. we tend to do a single focused bachelor’s or master’s degree.
So, broadening the ability of legal education to incorporate various business education modules that focus not only on the law but also on business specifics, let’s say - a six-week course within primary legal studies, could do a huge amount of benefit.
It is one of the reasons why the law conversion course process in the U.K. was very popular with students, and attractive among law firms, because - they’d have a candidate who would have an undergraduate degree in something “extra” and converted into law. Such candidates have a more diverse knowledge base and might also have a better understanding of where their legal practice might be useful commercially.