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In-house counsel Amy Spira does not believe in getting too comfortable in a job. In fact, she firmly believes that stepping outside your comfort zone makes work life far more rewarding, and opens the door to new opportunities. 

Spira is part of the Domain in-house legal team. She joined the company a year after it was listed, bringing a desire to become integral to the business and a willingness to become uncomfortable while doing so. Eighteen months later, her efforts were recognised when she was awarded Corporate Lawyer of the Year by the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia. 

Here, Spira provides insights into her award-winning projects, the five ways she believes that in-house counsel can add value to their business, and her lessons learned.

Exploring New Legal Horizons

Prior to the COVID pandemic, Spira was set up to work from home but opted to be present in the office during business hours. She was keen to build a relationship with the business, especially while the legal team was establishing itself. 

The Domain team was champing at the metaphorical bit to explore new ways of leveraging its technology and data and needed legal input to guide their projects. 

“It was a really exciting time,” Spira said. “It was a gratifying experience for in-house counsel to be a sounding board, especially in the technology space, where ideas are coming to the surface for the first time, not only in the business but in the industry. 

“You’ve got privacy and data questions bubbling to the surface with no established answers. So you’re going back to first principles as a lawyer and finding ways the business can achieve what it’s looking for in a framework that is evolving quickly,” she explained.

Early Legal Input Means Faster to Market

Wanting to help the business launch products to market more quickly, Spira and her team introduced a legal drop-in clinic for Hack Teams during Domain Innovation Days (technology hackathons). This way, she and her colleagues could address such issues as privacy and intellectual property constraints and business structuring and monetisation strategies. In turn, this resulted in more viable pitches to management, proving the benefit of involving legal counsel early in product ideation.

The in-house team soon found themselves flooded with requests for help. Spira recognised the need for process improvement, to free up the legal team to focus on high-risk, high-value work. 

“There are varying tasks that hit an in-house counsel’s desk,” Spira said. “Some are complex questions, requiring bespoke solutions. Others are run of the mill questions requiring a one-size-fits-all solution.” 

Spira’s team identified tasks that could be simplified by:

  • training the business;
  • making a resource available; or
  • providing a checklist to the business so the matter can evolve further before coming to the legal team.

Spira then worked with her team and the business to develop a series of checklists, cheat sheets, precedents and practice notes for the business. The team also uses a centralised legal email inbox. 

“Simple and incredibly cost-effective solutions like these make a big difference to how we funnel the instructions into our team and then respond to those questions in a timely fashion,” Spira said. “We could feel the impact on our team’s productivity and client satisfaction.”

Embracing the Discomfort of New Experiences

In addition to product development, Domain has a healthy acquisition and disposal program designed to support the business’ strategic objectives. As the legal team’s M&A specialist, Spira had a busy 12 months completing seven acquisitions and disposals, including acquiring commercialview.com.au and the Real Time Agent product suite. 

She felt fortunate to be working with the executive and strategy teams to support the business in this way and regarded it as a period of personal growth. 

“It cemented for me something intuitive: that the feeling of discomfort and disorientation you experience when you take on something new, different and hard is a preamble to growth and great achievement,” Spira said. 

“I learnt to adopt a ‘say yes’ policy to things that would stretch me and to embrace the discomfort that comes from not knowing exactly how you’re going to solve the problem.” 

Spira believes this will serve her well in her career moving forward, because the more she challenges herself, the more she feels fulfilled.

5 Ways to Add Value as In-House Counsel

Spira believes the best way in-house counsel can add value to their business is by:

  • being deeply aligned with what the business is trying to achieve; and 
  • finding creative solutions to impediments to those goals. 

“We bring our knowledge of the business along with our knowledge and understanding of the law,” she said.

Spira identifies five ways that in-house counsel can add value:

  1. Seek to understand the rationale behind any instruction. Spira believes it is not enough to ‘just’ address liability and risk allocation; she encourages in-house counsel to understand why the business is seeking to enter into the arrangement and how it meets the business’ strategic objectives. 
  2. Adopt a solutions focus. Don’t just focus on providing the right legal advice; find ways to help the business achieve its end goal. This includes finding creative alternatives when you run into a legal impediment. While in-house counsel cannot always say ‘yes’ to what the business wants, Spira believes a good legal counsel will find alternative options and present them to the business for consideration.
  3. Learn to speak the business’ language. It pays to learn the terminology the business and finance teams are using and to know your way around a balance sheet and P&L. This way when you give advice, you are more mindful of the context in which it will be received.
  4. Identify ways to extract additional value from an opportunity. In addition to your legal expertise, bring your ideas to the table for the business to consider. The business can workshop them and decide if there is something worth pursuing there, and will appreciate your added value.
  5. Anticipate the business’s future needs. This comes once you’re well embedded into the business. “You can see into the future and predict what’s coming next and explore how it will look in a legal framework,” Spira said. 

Amy Spira’s 3 Lessons Learned

With her ‘can do’ attitude and positive spirit, Spira’s career is on a positive trajectory. Having worked in private practice and in-house legal roles across a couple of industries, she is well placed to share the lessons she has learned to date. Here are her top three:

  1. Being passionate about your job is a choice that you make. You can approach standard tasks (such as contract review) from the perspective of drudgery and boredom, or you can look at it from the perspective of deep interest and curiosity. Find out the business’ strategic reasoning behind each task and be motivated by your role in pursuing the business’ objectives.
  2. Invest in relationships. Develop mutual respect for your colleagues’ expertise. This way, if you encounter friction between what the business is seeking to achieve and what you believe is the appropriate legal outcome, you can leverage the relationship to work together to find an effective solution. 
  3. Seek out opportunities to move outside your comfort zone and expand your horizons. “Feeling discomfort is a prelude to bigger and better things,” Spira said. “Embracing that feeling makes work and life so much more valuable and rewarding.”
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