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Zeynep Derman

Actualizado: 21 ago 2023

General Counsel, Coca Cola


The world is changing. The way of working and the role of in-house counsels are, too. I’ve been working as an in-house counsel more than 20 years. I have the privilege of witnessing and experiencing how the role has evolved in these years. Nowadays, in-house counsels who want to excel can no longer rest on their expertise, especially in these disruptive times. The role has already transitioned over time. It’s evolved from reading contracts and providing legal opinion just only based on what law says to having a seat together with leaders to discuss strategy. Looking into issues beyond merely “legal” advice is required which brings the need of us being equipped with the right skills that are interpersonal and behavioral skills beyond being a capable lawyer. Having a new set of skills that enable in-house counsels to serve as the trusted advisors is inevitable. We are no longer lawyers working in an enterprise anymore. We are strategic business partners with a law degree. The expectation from us commonly focusing on opportunities rather than only resolving problems. We do not have the luxury of limiting ourselves with the mechanics anymore.

To avoid being seen as a cost center anymore, we should all learn for driving the growth of the company we are working for. It can be possible by only being an enabler and a promoter. In-house counsels should build and maintain high-level of service to strengthen the business. In order to do that, I believe the soft skills are critical and the ones that differentiates us from outside-counsels/ private practice attorneys.

It starts with emotional intelligence which is one of the essential set of skills encompasses empathy, active listening, negotiating, influencing others, and more importantly building trust. Creating an environment of trust and safety is key, so we should be approachable that will help us to work well with others. Since, in-house counsels are client advocates who create and foster a relationship with the business to mitigate potential legal risks and successfully manage legal and/or reputational risks as they arise. We must be innovative and strategic thinkers, network problem solvers, value creators, and inclusion champions. Regardless of the level and title we hold, we should acknowledge that we are now leaders. So, we should have the right growth behaviors to act with a growth mindset that enable thinking proactively and strategically about how legal decisions will benefit or damage the business. No matter what work they do, in-house counsel must always keep the best interests of their employer in mind. This is a long-term engagement that requires deep, strategic thinking. Understand what the business is trying to achieve and how I can help.

We should be curious who never stops learning and are empowered to make it happen. We are expected to set the agenda by dreaming big and establishing a compelling vision to co-create the future and learn from each other to drive the success by looking into “what if” scenarios that pushes us to the next level. On the other hand, we all need to be prepared to be the lawyers of future while data and digitization has become the future. Technology & digitization is on the rise. Hence the trend is accelerated in this aspect, besides business acumen, knowing technology acumen is also critical. With the right level of external focus, we should monitor the trends. This is important to act faster, better to keep pace with the partners and find new ways to make their work more efficient as well as to improve outcomes for them. That’s why it’s important to be curious to learn.

In-house counsels have variety of clients with different levels and different backgrounds. In order to full fill the expectation, an in-house counsel should know the business, understand the needs for prioritization purposes. The work should be prioritized based on the shared enterprise goal. In order not to lose track and to be adaptable to the changing needs, we should discuss the priorities regularly. Teamwork and collaboration are important to stay on track.

For effective and efficient time management while handling many stakeholders and variety of matters including productivity work, we have to have the soft skills of delegation, teamwork, and collaboration. Flexibility and adaptability are other skills we should have since the needs of the business is changing.

For making an impact, in-house counsels should know to communicate effectively. Before doing so, they should be curious to gain knowledge, asking right questions to clarify and promote thinking. For delivering the right level of service, we must communicate effectively though multiple channels to assist the business from a legal standpoint. What we communicate is important as well as how we communicate because we are expected to negotiate and solve the problem by good storytelling and influencing. Writing like a lawyer does not help, so we should learn business writing. Illustration with visuals to articulate what is discussed, what you plan is more impactful. To develop this skill requires being curious and practice. Knowing your audience is crucial.

It's not unknown and even obvious, but leadership skills play a critical role in being a good in-house counsel since, it compasses adaptability, teamwork, receiving and giving feedback to make the others be their best, agility to focus on progress and to believe in the power of iteration to create better outcomes.

In the journey of practicing in the changing and demanding environment as in-house counsels, we suppose to invest in how we do as much as in what we do, so be curious, trustworthy, empathetic, creative by thinking out of the box to propose what is uncommon within the precedent and moving out of the comfort zone to make a difference, inclusive for having the right stakeholders in the discussion and/or learning from each other that makes us stronger and more agile, and influential leaders as impactful communicators. There are many other skills that can be added to the list, and it can be differentiated from a company to another based on the structure and industry. Let’s understand the expectations and what you can offer to make a difference. Enrichment both in technical expertise and soft skills for growth is important. These are my two cents to the readers who are my colleagues now and will be in the near future which may help them to shape their careers and the legacy they would like to leave.


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