It’s not unusual for in-house lawyers to wear many hats within an organisation, including legal adviser, strategic planner and business partner, to name only a few.
In-house roles are often not only wide-ranging, but fast-paced, with in-house counsel called on to provide advice that needs to be considered quickly and understood by diverse groups of stakeholders.
As General Counsel at the Cross River Rail Delivery Authority, Michael Zissis and his in-house cohort are part of a broader team delivering Queensland’s largest infrastructure project – understandably, a source of much public interest.
For Michael, having a strong working relationship with on-the-ground and public-facing teams, including contractors, is essential to build trust and support community engagement.
QLS Proctor spoke with Michael to gain some insights into what it looks like to lead an in-house legal team of a state government delegated authority, his involvement with the broader management team and external legal providers along with some of the attractions to working in-house.
QLS Proctor: What drew you to working within the public transport industry?
Michael: I like being involved in delivering something lots of people will benefit from – and working with people that feel the same way. Public transport meant a lot to me growing up in Newcastle, particularly as a teenager – I could catch the bus to the beach, I could catch the train to Sydney to see a show or head to the cricket or footy with a few mates. I would not have had those experiences without public transport and am very proud of being involved in projects that will provide similar opportunities for my kids and the community. Cross River Rail will be a game changer for Brisbane and provide a new public transport experience for customers that will hopefully see more of us reduce the number of cars in our garage.
QLS Proctor: How involved should in-house counsel become in commercial and general management matters?
Michael: Legal implications ought to be considered in all such matters, so it’s important for the General Counsel to have a seat at the strategic decision-making table. This avoids a previously unconsidered legal issue being raised, and putting the brakes on a deal or decision late in the piece – and, the adverse impacts that can have. I would be concerned by an organisational structure or culture that did not want to engage with their in-house team in that way – and is certainly not the case at the Delivery Authority, where I attend executive management team meetings and we embed in-house legal resources within the commercial and project teams.
QLS Proctor: Is there a ‘typical day’ for an in-house lawyer? If so, what does that look like?
Michael: Lots of meetings. Business partnering is key for any high performing in-house team in my view, so I set up regular recurring meetings with different teams to explore and address legal issues, with the frequency of meetings dependent on the needs of that internal client. We endeavour to build value and accountability from meetings by distributing brief action lists afterwards.
QLS Proctor: Do you use external counsel? If so, what do you look for in them?
Michael: Yes. In addition to expertise and value for money, I am interested in the depth of the team and who is doing the work. I like seeing firms bring more junior lawyers into meetings and provide opportunities to lead and own matters – how else will the next generation of partners come through?
Concise and practical advice is critical. Having exceptional external legal support is also critical. We have done this through establishing an external legal panel, comprising a number of firms of varying sizes that specialise in the areas of law we require support with from time to time. It gives us access to some of the best lawyers in town, while driving competition and value. The trick is having the panel large enough to provide choice, but small enough so as not to create an administration burden for an already busy and relatively lean in-house team.
QLS Proctor: Should more lawyers consider working in-house?
Michael: Absolutely. One of the best things about working in-house is learning from professionals who are not lawyers. In-house teams generally operate in high performing organisations, so you come across brilliant people in non-legal fields to observe and learn from, which in turn supports your development. Working in-house may also provide opportunities to transition into a commercial or non-legal role.
Michael Zissis was a guest speaker at this morning’s QLS In-house Lawyers Breakfast, the first of a series of events to be hosted by Queensland Law Society this year with an ‘in-house counsel’ focus – keep an eye out for the next event to be held in June.