Name the behaviour - what makes a lawyer successful in-house?

For a very few people, usually labelled as eccentric or rude, telling someone to their face what you really think of them comes naturally. But for most of us, it's something we have to learn. Unless we're taught how, most of us struggle to pass judgement (out-loud) on a person sitting opposite us. It feels faintly sociopathic, like Hannibal Lecter talking to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. People go to great lengths to avoid it. But, in business life, telling people how they're really doing is a critical part of running a company well. If you're a manager and you want to improve the performance of your team, not to mention the career potential of the individuals who work for you, you need to get to grips with this particular skill.

I'll always be grateful to the person who taught me how to give honest feedback to my team-members and colleagues without feeling like a sociopathic mass-murderer. To do it properly, you need to avoid the common pitfall, which is to rush straight to the conclusion. Let's start with an example of how not to do it. A boss once said to me in my appraisal "you're very stubborn". You can hardly respond by saying "no I'm not", so we had a rather pointless conversation instead. Inside, I was thinking "only because you're so often spectacularly wrong". From that meeting, I learned how not to conduct an appraisal but little else, which was shame, because looking back with the benefit of another 15 years of experience, he had a point. 

If you tell someone "you're difficult to work with", or something similarly conclusory, 
they'll normally react by denying it. Where does that leave you? You haven't convinced them you're right and they certainly won't change as a result. No change, no improvement. Added to which, there will now be a simmering resentment for what you've said about them. 

Instead of rushing to the conclusion, the secret lies in the phrase "name the behaviour". Don't believe me? 
Let's try it together. Close your eyes and think of your most difficult work colleague. What are the specific behaviours that lead you to your judgment? Try to go for things which are clearly manifest and you can easily describe. Is it that they don't really listen when you're speaking? Is it that they tell you they agree and then go away and tell other people they disagree? Do they pass work to others but never accept it themselves? Maybe they nitpick over trivial details? The possibilities are endless.

Now imagine you are this person's boss. Maybe you really are. You have to tell them what's holding them back. Reach for "name the behaviour". That means focussing, one at a time, on an identifiable behaviour, something you can actually describe. For example: "you're often late for meetings, for example the budget review on Tuesday." Once this has sunk in, next you can move to: "how do you think that affects me and the other attendees?" Unless they have Lecter-like tendencies of their own, you can normally lead them to the conclusion that they are disorganized and/or arrogant (keeping people waiting is a form of arrogance after all). A process of self-recognition like this is far more likely to result in change.

How is this relevant to the question of what makes a lawyer successful in-house? There has been a lot of discussion in recent blogs about what it means for lawyers to be "commercially aware" and the degree to which this is important for those starting their careers. Some commentators insist on the primary importance of being a "great lawyer". Others have argued that business knowledge is also important. The point has been made that it is unfair to ask lawyers to be commercially aware 
when it's not emphasized on law courses. The opinions expressed a strongly held by both sides (for example on Michelle Hyne's blog Ashley Connick has posted a nice overview of the debate and some interesting viewpoints of his own (

My own view is that law is always practised in some context, whether politics, society, business or something else. Beyond that, I'm really only qualified to comment from the viewpoint of business. As a General Counsel, do I think lawyers need to be "commercially aware" to succeed in-house? Of course I do. But what does that actually mean? I think we've strayed into the same trap as the boss mishandling the appraisal. We're rushing to to a conclusion which is difficult to understand and easy to deny or affirm. This isn't getting us anywhere. 

Instead, let's reach for "name the behaviour". What are the behaviours we expect from an in-house lawyer who is "commercially aware"? Below are some specific behaviours I think are needed for success. In my own department, these are written down and tied back to our company's stated values. They're by no means exhaustive. But I think they're applicable for all in-housers.

First, get your analysis right. This means you need to know the law and know the facts. You need to apply the law properly to the facts. Being an in-houser doesn't entitle you to be any less rigorous as a lawyer. You wouldn't expect your company's Financial Controller to say "I've prepared the accounts approximately right. I'll let the auditors do it rigorously". After all, in a company, if the in-house lawyer doesn't get the legal analysis right, nobody else will. It's a core expectation and the foundation of everything else, so don't shirk it.

Second, show courage. Speak truth to power. Whatever your conclusions are, whatever you think, you have to be brave enough to tell people fearlessly, even when they are powerful. If you cannot do this, you're as good as useless. Any fool can be a "yes man" and your business leaders won't make better decisions unless you speak up. I'm not advocating being undiplomatic. If you need to tell your business leader something difficult, I recommend you do it one to one, behind a closed door, rather than in front of their entire team. By all means choose your moment, but once you get that moment, do not shade your message. You have what McKinsey call the "obligation to dissent" if you don't agree. 

Third, be concise. Get to the point. Nothing is more tiresome for busy business leaders trying to synthesize the inputs they are receiving from multiple sources, than a long explanation of the legal reasoning behind your conclusion. Think and speak clearly. Nobody else is interested in your reasoning, let alone the law, although they will expect you to know it and you should be ready to explain it if that's needed to convince people you've thought things through carefully. 

Fourth, give solutions and options, within the law. You're not an in-house lawyer to hand down olympian pronouncements on what is and isn't allowed. Your job is to help crush your boss's and your company's objectives (see my post on ignoring some e-mails). You're supposed to be there to help. Offer alternatives - it shows you understand what people are trying to achieve and care about the outcome.

Fifth, act with integrity at all times. Don't forget your professional obligations to uphold certain standards. This doesn't need explanation to anyone who has trained and qualified as a lawyer. But remember, you need to be prepared to accept that there are some extreme circumstances in which you'd have to resign if you couldn't reconcile this obligation with what others are doing. 

Sixth, develop yourself, your colleagues and your direct reports. Each of us has learned what we know because of the efforts of others to teach us. Never stop forcing yourself to learn new things and get better at what you're doing. Then put the same energy back into helping others do the same, whether they are colleagues or team members. You owe it to them to tell them how they are really doing and how they can get better. So, back to the title of the post - name the behaviour.

Postscript: I've received some interesting comments about other behaviours which help in-housers to succeed. For those interested in further reading on this topic, I recommend the Reebok Rules, published in the ACCA Docket in 1992 (
Next time, I'm going in a different direction, looking at everything from LPOs to the law firm business model. The topic will be "What's the shape of the legal department in five years from now?"


  1. To this list I'd suggest adding: Be good at networking.
    To be effective, in house lawyers need to be approachable, and get to know people across the business in other departments. If you are known to people they are much more likely to raise questions with you at a time when you can prevent problems, rather than having to pick up the pieces when it blows up.

  2. Like it - all good points, and ditto for Shireen's comment. On the fourth point, I would say that the solutions and options will come easier if one understands the financial, technical, operational, market (etc) factors affecting the issue at hand. That's what I would call commercial awareness, for what it's worth.

  3. Surely these points are just as applicable to a lawyer in private practice? Good list though.

    However, on the "name the behaviour" point, the problem is that sometimes people draw the wrong conclusions from certain behaviour. Lateness might equal arrogance or it could just mean a person is disorganised. Or Spanish.

    Equally, you can end up with a situation where people conform to a type of behaviour in order to project a certain image. For example, I think it is the mark of a confident lawyer to tell a client (or colleague) he has not got a clue what the client is talking about, rather than pretending to understand everything perfectly.


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