Eoin took some time to share his top five lessons for aspiring legal leaders with Obelisk:
Don’t be a slave to your legal work
It is incredibly easy for lawyers to find themselves sucked into a loop of email, conference calls and more email that feels like work but is actually holding them back from making a meaningful impact on their business, and from growing as a professional. Instead, carve out time to identify the two or three things that are most important at any time, focus effort on them and force yourself to make peace with the fact that you will not be able to give every query and issue the same level of attention. Spend the time you free up out in the business.
When I took over leading a legal and compliance team in New York, I found less than 10% of the group were able to spend any meaningful face-to-face time with colleagues in the trading and client coverage areas of the bank, seriously reducing their ability to understand and influence the business planning in these teams. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re in the business just because you’re in the same building, you need to invest time in relationships.
Ask before you answer
I soon worked out that where my legal training helped me add the most value was not in just jumping straight in to provide detailed advice to any question I was asked, taking questions at face value, but instead to pause and look behind the question, ask what the business was really trying to achieve. For example, when I was General Counsel for Credit Suisse in Asia, I was covering 15 different jurisdictions, each of which had their own laws, regulations and practices. It was far more productive for me to take time with my commercial colleagues to understand the big picture of what they were trying to achieve and why, to understand underlying client drivers and objectives, then to simply recommend the most efficient way of addressing a question from a purely legal point of view. Taking time to consider the “why” rather than just the “how” avoided burning time producing advice and options related to a series of granular queries.
As a lawyer, you learn to organise your thinking in a particular structure – often your greatest contribution is applying that structured thinking approach to tease out the questions behind a particular problem rather than rushing to an answer. Put differently, it is important to realise that there is significant value in a lawyer bringing new perspectives to how the business thinks about a problem, rather than just providing technical answers.
Break out of your bubble
As soon as you go in-house, you are an employee of the company first, lawyer second. Of course the nature of your role and the advice you give means that your professional integrity should never be compromised, everyone understands that.
However in your general interaction with other employees, it can be very off-putting if you try to behave and want to be treated differently to any other employee simply on the basis that you are a lawyer. It is one of the most frequent criticisms of in-house lawyers that I have picked up over the years, “ivory tower” syndrome if you will. This even extends to your desk – yes, you might need some privacy for calls and meetings on occasion but resist the temptation to set yourself up in a cosy office with pictures on the walls while everyone else sits out on the floor. You will be shutting yourself out of opportunities to learn about the plumbing of the business and deliver better, more relevant advice. I’ve even seen in-house lawyers try to behave as though they are still in practice, taking questions extremely literally and providing long lists of citations and caveats as if they were an independent law firm.
When you are in-house, you need to get to grips with the fact that there is shared ownership of the outcome. You have to be comfortable that the buck is going to stop with you, with a certain level of ambiguity, and that you will own the decisions you make. These will be better decisions the closer you are to what’s going on in different parts of the business. The better your decisions, the more your credibility will grow and you will be more likely to be invited into new projects, roles and opportunities.
Embrace every opportunity
While I was working in Asia in the 2000’s, I had a unique opportunity to move over into the COO role because I was working with markets where the processes to launch and deliver services were less established than they were in Europe or the US. That meant my legal role took me into the nuts and bolts of how we would package a service, what data and technology we would need to deliver it and how we were going to organise our teams across the region. Operating as COO led to working more closely with the CEO, so when it was time, I could step up as I had learnt not only the levers on the operational side but also how to craft and present the story behind the numbers and strategy of the unit.
One of the most important lessons you learn in your career is how to get the most from every opportunity. Sometimes that means taking a bet on the unknown or relocating your family, or even taking on a role that might not have been your first choice. It’s vital to ask yourself, where could this take me? How can I demonstrate through this experience that I’ve learnt something new and can do more?
Humility, humility, humility
If you want to be a leader, you have to be able to step up, to engage with people and create a narrative that others buy into. Conversely, you also have to be comfortable with exposing the limit of your knowledge and experience. This can be especially hard for lawyers who by definition take great pride in mastering their craft, in being on top of the detail in their chosen speciality. But a stubborn unwillingness to admit knowledge gaps, to show some vulnerability, can easily be seen as arrogance. If you can’t be incredibly honest about what you don’t know, you are not going be an authentic leader. Once you can recognise and share your weaknesses and gaps in your knowledge, you can work on these.
Whether it’s from role-models, formal education, feedback, your teams or other industries – you have to be prepared to keep on learning. In my experience, for lawyers and for leaders generally, the more they are willing to be honest about their limitations, to be able to say “This is beyond what I know”, the more likely it is that people will want to be led by them.