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Panel Discussion: Managing your career from sole Legal Counsel to Head of Legal

Taylor Root Market Insight, CAREER ADVICE

Managing your career from sole Legal Counsel to Head of Legal

"Your organisation brought you in to save costs on external counsel, however, you are now overloaded with requests across the business and need to bring in extra support. How do you pitch the need for additional headcount to the executive team and grow the legal function in your business?"

The role of the sole in-house lawyer, which is often the first legal hire of a company, is commonly misunderstood by both the hiring company and the prospective candidate.

The role can offer both reward and development in equal measures but what quickly becomes clear is that you almost certainly won’t be able to provide all the legal services your company needs on your own. As a result, you will have to use external counsel, alternative legal providers, tech, law firms secondees and in many cases to build a full legal team.

But how do you pitch for additional headcount? What considerations should you take into account beforehand, during and after?

As part of this years ACC In-house Legal Conference, Hayden Gordine, Head of Taylor Root Australia, spoke with Marnie Troeth, General Counsel & Company Secretary at genU and Krystal Kovac, Head of Legal & Compliance at Oncore to share their insights and to discuss how to navigate a move from Sole Legal Counsel to Head of Legal Team.

ABOUT THE SPEAKERS

Hayden Gordine is the head of Taylor Root Australia, a global legal search and recruitment firm. He has practiced corporate law originally in New Zealand before embarking on a career abroad in London. After five years as a corporate lawyer, he decided to make the move into legal recruitment. With a recruitment career spanning more than 13 years he has worked in London, Singapore, Hong Kong and is now based in Sydney, Australia. As well as heading up the brand in Australia, Hayden works with both International and Australian Law Firms as well as Australian and Internal organisations on Partner, General Counsel and Company Secretary hires.

Marnie Troeth is General Counsel & Company Secretary at genU, a not-for-profit organisation delivering support and services to thousands of Australians in the areas of disability, aged care and employment. Marnie started her legal career in a small private practice firm in a regional location. After 15 years in private practice, she decided instead of heading down the path of Partner, she would go in-house. Marnie started her in-house journey as Sole Legal Counsel, where she is still working today after almost 10 years. The organisation was much smaller back then, and as the company grew so did Marnie’s need for a bigger legal team and her move into the role that she holds today as General Counsel & Company Secretary.

Krystal Kovac is the Head of Legal & Compliance at Oncore, a global company specialising in payment solutions for professional contractors, recruiters and corporates. Krystal started her legal career in private practice, however in 2017 a contract role was presented to her working at a large Telco based in Sydney. The role was working within the Finance team as a Contracts Analyst, and it was here that her spark was ignited about the possibilities of working as an in-house lawyer. Krystal then embarked on her in-house career taking on the role of sole Legal Counsel at Oncore, where she is today.

WORKING AS A SOLE LEGAL COUNSEL

How important are reporting lines when working as a sole Legal Counsel?

More common than not, sole Legal Counsel generally report directly to the CEO of the organisation. This line of reporting is important so that the company views the role as a senior executive position with adequate resources, independence, and importance within the organization, and as a critical stakeholder in decision-making at the company.

Marnie commented that it can be very challenging if the reporting line is something other than to the CEO, and she has witnessed colleagues leave an organisation because of challenges that can occur due to reporting lines. 

How do you overcome the misconception that lawyers should not be involved in non-legal work?

Krystal comments that is important to take baby steps. When you are acting as sole legal counsel you need to build and create relationships first. Prove your worth with the work that is coming in. Go above and beyond. Point out where you can see optimisation outside of legal. Then as you start to prove your worth, there will be opportunities that will be presented, and your portfolio will begin to grow. Opportunities like working directly with the CEO on the company strategy etc. Start small, do a great job on what the task is that the company wants you to work on, then taking on more responsibilities. Building relationships with the other teams in the business and helping them see that you are not a roadblock, but a person that will be able to enable all to achieve the goals of the business.

How can you be seen as a key business advisor rather than just a lawyer?

Marnie advised that developing relationships takes time. It will not happen overnight. It is important to meet with the business regularly and to get out into the organisation and understanding how the business and the people in the business operate.  Often, you will not have everyone onboard and supportive of your views and the legal function, but it is working through how you can influence those people to show how you can add value to the business beyond the legal function, and not be pigeonholed into just being seen as a lawyer.

Was the aim to always build a legal team or was there a trigger such as a blow out of outside counsel budget that made your role change and team grow?

Krystal comments in her role there were two parallels that acted as the trigger.  The first was her coming into the company as the first sole Legal Counsel and concentrating on contracts and the second was through scale and those two things converged. The role and therefore the team then organically grew.

Hayden then added that typically most roles as sole legal counsel normally experience organic growth or unplanned growth as for most companies, this is the first time that they have had someone inside the business, and they don’t really know all the legal opportunities available to them until it is in front of them.

Krystal continued that in her role as she was managing the contracts function, then the sales team then realised that they had someone to go to with questions that they had, that may not have been previously answered from a legal aspect. Krystal was then able to run a sales training program with the sales team to teach them to speak confidently to the contract and what they can and cannot say.

How important is it to be proactive in the development of your leadership and management skills?

Marnie commented that it is really important to be proactive in gaining, updating and managed the additional skills outside of the regular legal function, because as a sole legal counsel you need to be across so many different areas. Being an in-house counsel does give you many opportunities for leadership opportunities and leadership development.  There are however so many courses and materials out there that it is important to map out your own specific journey of learning, as there is no one size fits all approach.

Marnie advised one great thing that she did was to join the ACC mentoring program. She was able to speak to her mentor about what her career aspirations were, how to get where she wanted to go and if she had any areas gaps and what did she need to do get to her aspiration of being a GC.

Marnie also added that she regularly spoke to other leaders in her business to understand how they managed their teams, so that she may be able to step in if needed at any time. This way not only did it build her capability, but it also gave visibility of her capabilities to the company.

Hayden added that as a sole legal counsel, you have to wear so many hats and that the more you can sub in for other people in the business and gain more experience by stepping into someone else’s position, that it shows that you really understand every element of the business, not just that of the legal function.

Krystal advised that for her mentoring was also a major part of her development in leadership and management skills, but it was mentoring outside of the legal profession. Having mentors that are not GC’s but been in roles such as CEO’s, board members, associate directors, so that they can give you a little bit of perspective but also giving you strength in management and leadership piece.

GROWING YOUR LEGAL TEAM / DEPARTMENT

As a company grows, how do you evaluate and justify legal spend to expand the legal function in-house?

Marnie advises that with her company whilst it was going through stage of mergers and acquisitions that due to the volume of work that was going to start coming through as well as the complex nature of some of the new contracts etc, the focus was not really on the financial metrics but that of minimising risk. Marnie also commented that as she had been in her role for over 5 years and that she had developed the level of trust with the business that they were prepared to look at internal expansion of the legal function rather than taking the work outside the business.

On the other hand, let’s look at the alternatives to team expansion. What alternatives have you considered? And how important is it to have a combination of both?

Krystal confirms that for her it is definitely a combination of both. By having her core group of people, but also ensuring that they have access to all the necessary elements to make it all as efficient as possible for them. By implementing to technology to make the day-to-day tasks more efficient. Using tech to automate processed that don’t require the level of legal skill and reallocate those resources to areas where it is needed more.

How do you justify the spend on tech? And prove that the spend will result in increased ROI etc?

Krystal advised that she started small with relatively inexpensive software that could give visibility to the business and show the business what value could be achieved with the little investment, and then the possibility of what could be achieved with expansion into a bigger Contract Management system. A larger system could be cross functional and used across multiple teams and departments. Looking at the all the metrics to see how a larger investment can free up time for all teams across the business and show that with the time being saved by using tech, that resources could now be redeploy to other parts of the business.

Hayden commented that these days that the role of the Head of Legal is to look at how to set up not just a legal team but a full legal department involving not just a team of people, but incorporating tech.

Marnie advised that when looking at integrating tech into the business it is essential to show not only the benefits for the legal function but that it aligns with all other areas of the business. To get stand alone systems just for legal doesn’t always benefit the business and therefore is more difficult to justify.

Marnie also commented that implementing tech is not always about the ROI it is about bringing efficiencies into the business and ensuring processes are more effective – to create value in delivery.

You have gained the budget and you are looking to hire. Obviously, the first thing to do is engage Taylor Root. But in all seriousness, how do you evaluate whether you need a specialist or a generalist?

Krystal said that when first starting to increase her team it was essential to hire a generalist as she needed that person to be helping her with the workload and be across everything.  Now that the team is looking to expand again, it would be beneficial to look for a specialist however ensuring that that person would still be willing to work across a range of matters and be willing to step out of the specialist role to assist where and when needed.

Marnie advised for her it was important to look at where the highest volume of work was coming into the business and what was important to the business at that time, and it was to hire and invest in a specialist. When you have a small team, it is important to have a good cross section of both, some generalists to be a little bit across everything and some people that have the expertise and a deep understanding of the areas that are really key to the business.

Finally, what would you say is a key learning from your career journey?

Marnie advised that the most important thing for her was to take the key opportunities when they arise, be mindful and do your due diligence. But grab the opportunities when they are there. Also, to participate in a mentoring program so as to have someone to champion you and encourage you along on your journey.

Krystal says to know that you will not be able to fix everything on day 1. It’s a journey.  You need to approach it as a journey. And embrace all that is thrown at you. Enjoy the rider.

CONCLUSION

Hayden concluded that one of the key takeaways from this discussion is that it is very difficult to plan how to go from sole Legal Counsel to Head of Legal, it occurs organically. A business needs to change or to expand. Even if taking a legal department from being very technical to being risk focussed, it’s still going to be a journey that each individual person is going to develop in, the business is going to develop in and it is essential to bring in all the key stakeholders into that process.

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Thank you to our panelists Krystal Kovac and Marnie Troeth and for the great insights into their role and experience managing their own careers from sole Legal Counsel to Head of Legal.

If you have any questions or would like a confidential discussion about your career, please contact Hayden Gordine at Taylor Root on (02) 9236 9000 or haydengordine@taylorroot.com.au