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Smashing the System

RUPA PATEL IS A FEMALE GENERAL COUNSEL who has developed a successful career through several exciting general counsel roles, often as the first lawyer in the company. Working with prominent CEOs across a diverse range of organisations has given her many valuable opportunities for personal development as a leader of people.

This places Rupa within a new breed of in-house lawyers who are challenging many of the old paradigms about what an in-house lawyer is and needs to be; paradigms that she sees as no longer being fit for purpose.

On the eve of assuming her new role as General Counsel at Awaze, I spoke to Rupa about what aspects of her thinking had changed; the importance of inspirational leadership and why many of the old systems of thought and behaviours in the legal arena need to be toppled.


Catherine: As the role of the general counsel has evolved away from being predominantly a lawyer to be a business leader with legal training, how does that practically impact what skills prospective general counsel need to cultivate?

Rupa: I think leadership is a significant skill that many of us still underestimate, particularly lawyers. For me leadership divides into three core skills: emotional intelligence, influence and communication. A great leader can inspire you and be a defining factor in why you take a role:  one of the reasons I joined Awaze is because of the CEO Henrik Kjellberg. From the outset, his passion for the company, the journey he plans to take Awaze on and his belief in the product was amazing. He also made it very clear that he was willing to invest in me, to broaden my skills beyond the immediate scope of General Counsel, such that for me to take on a CEO role one day could be a very real possibility. When people pick roles. I believe that it should not just be about the name of the company, but rather more importantly it is the person you will be working for - will they invest in you and do they inspire you, will they make you the best person you possibly can be?

For me, I believe an important way to become a great leader is to develop your emotional intelligence. EQ is being aware of the personalities you deal with and how each of them react and interact with the other. You need that intelligence as a leader and the ability to influence. When you are a junior in-house lawyer, you can make an impact through your work, but when you progress to a more senior in-house level you must mold the message; you have to make decisions and justify them.

Communication is an important factor and how you are able influence and inspire people. It all comes down to the messages you deliver. For example, there’s a lot of discussion about getting a seat at the table, but if you’re just occupying space and are not operating at a senior level, if all you do is what you are asked or confine yourself to what it says in your job description then you not delivering real value. You must add wider value if you are to succeed

Lawyers must really get serious about this. It’s about understanding the business and the prospective of and direction for the company for the next three to five years and the role you can play in achieving the wider commercial objective


Catherine: What do you think were the key milestones in your own professional career that led you away from just being ‘the lawyer’?

Rupa: It was being thrown into the deep end when I took my first in-house legal role at BPP. This role was to create the in-house legal function at BPP. My CEO at the time, Carl Lygo. made a habit of pushing me out of my comfort zone, because he wanted to develop me and recognised my potential. There was a tricky immigration issue that I felt needed outside counsel support, but he questioned why and convinced me to take the challenge on. Carl instilled a lot of confidence in me and gave me faith in my own abilities. He was a barrister who had made the transition from Lawyer to CEO. I think his advice resonated with me more because of what he had achieved.

It was clear to me from way he operated that a legal career path could be broader than just being ‘the lawyer’ and I found this inspirational.


C:What would say defines your style as a leader and what do you most enjoy about leading a legal department?

R: I believe it’s important to participate fully; to step up and step out of being the lawyer in the box. My CEO at Exterion Media, Leon Taviansky was very much of the mindset that my opinion on wider issues counted as much as anyone else. After my first board meeting he said, “If you attend another board meeting and you don’t speak, you won’t attend again. “ He believed that if I was attending the board meeting then I participated fully. I think that’s been a key learning for me; participate fully, not just as a lawyer. That means understanding and getting to know the business, which is as much your responsibility as the CEO’s to make sure that you are heading in the right direction and to add value beyond your immediate remit. That’s what that makes a General Counsel , it’s understanding the big picture for the business. You can make better decisions because you know the strategic sectoral impact; the financial impact etc.


C: You have mentioned meeting prospective GC candidates, who seem very unsure as leaders. What would be your top tips for helping bridge the gap between being a lawyer and being a leader?

R: Do not be scared. Have faith in your ability. Know that much of what you are being asked to make judgements on and implement is common sense. Some of it’s learning to trust your gut instinct: as you grow as a lawyer you develop your sense of things even if you don’t know the area.  As you grow that sense you can instinctively say, “Yes it will be an issue,” or, “No it won’t, but I need to go away and think about it.”

I always think that many lawyers are on the back foot because they don’t often fully understand the financial aspects of a company, whereas many CEOs come through the journey of being an accountant. Law firms should be doing more in this space with trainees and associates. I think if you want to be a good lawyer, whether in-house or private practice, you need to understand the big picture of the business and this includes the numbers.


C:Moving into leadership brings responsibilities. Part of that is helping shape the culture of one’s team and one’s organisation. There’s still a lack of diversity in the legal profession, particularly in leadership. How do you think we can encourage legal leaders to become inclusive leaders?

R: Don’t just look at the narrowest skill set! When you build your team if you look at three A’s at A Level or attendance at a Russell Group university; or training at a city law firm, then you will get group think. You need to have diversity of thought and a significant way to achieve that is by looking at the different routes to qualification that people have taken.

One thing that has come up recently in recruitment processes that I have managed is maternity leave. If you want to bring more women into a company then looking at maternity leave, paternity leave and how you encourage people to return to work is very important. I think most women want to return to work, but if you make that fundamentally challenging then they will not come back.

It’s important for all leaders to do what they can to widen the pool. At both BPP and Exterion, I implemented a training contract. All my trainees are now in private practice, but they probably wouldn’t have got a training contract by applying directly to law firms as their routes to law didn’t tick all the traditional boxes. But they all had a magnificent work ethic and were willing to learn and took on board constructive feedback.

Those trainees are the one of my proudest achievements in work and I get the most satisfaction in my career from developing people.


C:What do you think general counsel need to focus on internally as leaders?

R: I think if you are a GC and have a team you need to spend time mentoring and developing your team. It isn’t just about being focused on looking upwards to the board level.

If you want to build an inclusive and diverse team you need to put effort into it. That means sponsorship, mentoring, guidance and training. A talented team will effectively support your career path.

Things will only change if people put the effort in, if you take the easy road then things will never change.


C: Often companies and law firms do not recognise fully the need for diversity unless it’s framed as a business imperative.  General counsel make pronouncements about the need for diversity in suppliers but what do you think is incumbent on general counsel like yourself to actually do to create greater inclusivity in law firms?

R: Well, don’t hire them if they are not diverse!  If you are a board level GC it’s incumbent on you to influence your service providers. It needs to infuse everything you do, not just hiring. For example, if a law firm asks you to speak on a panel, refuse unless there is more than one woman or ethnic minority. We need to visually change the narrative regarding role models, that’s a significant starting point for structural change.

I would add that it is not just physical diversity, it’s diversity of thought. I think there are consequences for your culture and your potential success if you don’t embrace this.


C: What do you think the consequences are or will be?

R: If you have come from a privileged background,  such as attended a private school, then went on to a Russell Group university, then obtained a training contract at a City law firm and you fill your firm or company with people like that, you will not  have people with, what I call  “hustle”;  people who have had to work hard to get where they are and who can bring different perspectives.

It’s using the elements that build you and your character and that influences the way you advise. I saw this myself.

I was so different when I was in private practice, I changed who I was to fit into what I thought I needed to be. When I started at a law firm my Dad bought me seven suits and he said to me recently,“You don’t wear suits anymore?” But I felt that was literally so restrictive, for me, that was conformity; dressing more like a man and acting more like a man.

Law firms must fundamentally change the way they recruit and what they consider important once you get there.

I was governor at an inner city school in Wembley.  For one in three kids there, English is not their first language and their families are below the breadline. If you come from a school like that and you get three B’s at A level, you have achieved SO much. Law firms exclude kids so easily, you must look behind the academic curtain to get your ‘hustle’!


C: What would be your key thoughts on how we can introduce systemic change so that the legal profession of the future does not just replicate the current system with some technology added in?

R:When you are hiring  people, mentoring people and building your teams it’s looking at the other skills needed beyond just traditional technical, legal expertise.

There is a very clear roadmap where a lot of the day to day work does not need to be done by a human being. Innovation and technology is going to do part of our jobs, not matter what way we may think. But technology cannot think laterally and creatively. The most sought-after skill in any industry is and will be going forwards, EQ. The jobs of the future are mainly in the areas of empathy and creativity. Thinking about those softer skills relates back to diversity of thought: it’s the hustle, the journey, are you able to have different points of view within an organisation?

If you don’t develop a culture where people are willing to put their hand up and say, “Actually have you thought about it like this?”  then we are not going to get true innovation.

There are developments such as the way the solicitor qualification is changing, for example the Solicitors Qualifying Exam SQE which allows for different paths to law.

As part of that the LPC and GDL is changing, maybe it’s at that stage law schools need to develop training that specifically develops EQ, not just about law, more like an MBA with strategy etc.

If we look at approaching things in the same way in the legal profession, it’s really like the adage about insanity - insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome!


Catherine: As we see a new generation of general counsel move into the top legal seat in many organizations, we also see a new way of looking at traditional problems. This is due to the way many of these general counsel approach their role as leaders and lawyers. As Rupa and I discussed, emotional intelligence, influence and communication are fundamental.

But lawyers do also need to have faith that a lot of what they will be called on to exhibit as leaders and where they might create the most value may not be necessarily underpinned by those traditional skills that are based in technical legal aptitude. This mind set is based in having the confidence to take chances and step out of your comfort zone. It also requires leaders and their teams to value the deep advantage that true diversity of thought gives you and the ‘hustle’ it brings to what you do. As Rupa defined it ‘hustle’ comes from people who have had to work hard to get where they are and who can bring different perspectives.

And it’s using the elements that build you and your character and that influence the way you advise. As a defining metric for what businesses and legal departments  need in the 21st century it certainly hits the spot!