Real-life tips for building commercial awareness
Having commercial awareness is a skill sought after by in-house clients. Legal ability is understood as a given, whereas demonstrating sound business acumen will really enhance your career as a legal consultant.
The good news is that as a lawyer from private practice, a returner to legal work, or as a paralegal, you can develop these skills.
As part of the Move the Needle series for our Obelisk Support consultant community, we took a deep dive into what the global organisation Kantar, the world’s leading data, insights and consulting company, perceives as the priorities for their legal team. We spoke to Nilema Bhakta-Jones, Group General Counsel, who uses Obelisk Support’s lawyers and paralegals to support her legal team; together with Ivan Guevara, a senior corporate lawyer and Obelisk consultant who has been supporting Kantar with their M&A transactions, to find out what the key issues are.
#1 Understand your client’s drivers
An organisation’s commercial purpose is its central driver and the role of a legal adviser is to facilitate the transactions involved effectively whilst protecting the organisation’s position. There are also other factors such as the operational requirements of organisation itself, both internally and externally. For example, employment matters, privacy, data and compliance, risk management, IP protection and compliance with wider sector regulatory frameworks all relate to day-to-date operations.
The oversight of these various areas requires an in-house lawyer to have a breadth of scope as well as specific knowledge of both legal and commercial issues
There can also be specific shareholder objectives too, which encompass wider initiatives such as environmental, social and governance matters (ESG). In-house lawyers need to ensure these objectives are achieved within their oversight role.
Further external demands from clients may need to be considered, such as information about supply chains and inclusion and diversity initiatives to encourage social mobility and diverse teams.
#2 Demonstrate you understand what busy in-house teams need
In-house teams typically turn to freelance lawyers when they need help to meet an increase in work, fill a gap or require specialist knowledge to assist with a certain project. They look for lawyers who understand the work to be done and the role of the lawyer in that task. For example, Nilema chose Ivan as she needed an experienced senior M&A counsel to join her team when they became so busy. Nilema emphasised that she doesn’t regard legal consultants as any different to other members of the team and sees their experience, perspectives and ideas as a valuable contribution to the business. She emphasised the need for partnership and collaboration to deliver work tailored to the business objectives, within critical time frames.
There’s an obvious change of focus that’s required when working as a part of an in-house legal team, in contrast to working in private practice where the output is delivering legal advice. Ivan highlighted this important shift from a lawyer’s perspective from working in a legal business to an organisation which has its own targets and missions. Once you are aware of the business drivers and the strategy, consider carefully what part of your role helps to facilitate that.
“The best lawyers are those who are the most curious and willing to do the research and legwork to find out what the best answer is.”
# Master these three key rules for getting up to speed quickly
There are three main ways that you can hit the ground running. In your first few weeks of an assignment, make sure you:
- Establish good working relationships
- Use effective communication channels
- Seek clarity if you don’t understand something.
When Ivan joined Kantar, there were several deals at different stages, and it was critical for him to become familiar with them quickly. Establishing good working relationships across different teams, such as the corporate development department, which drives transactions from a commercial point of view, was vital to building his understanding. He stresses that identifying the best way to get answers and give input is key, especially when working remotely.
His advice is to be clear about what information you need and from whom, and not to be afraid to ask questions of individuals involved across departments and other organisations. Every company is different in terms of the ways of working, and there will be corporate cultural nuances to pick up, so consider how the company culture affects the delivery of the legal work. There will also be the technical aspects of where the organisation’s information is held and different collaboration tools and document management systems to master.
Each role will vary depending on the organisation’s requirements, so do your research on the company and sector. Make sure you take some time to step back and see the bigger context of your work. When you join a company, observe and be interested in everyone’s role in delivering the business objectives. Ask questions appropriately and maintain curiosity about the pressure points, other people’s timeframes, and deadlines. Problem solving and the ability to adapt and respond to changing priorities are essential skills to demonstrate.
“Some people are only used to working with other lawyers but here, especially doing M & A, we need to have commercial conversations with all our colleagues”