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Never underestimate your sphere of influence. That is one of the key lessons that Pacific National General Counsel Andrew Beck has learned during his career. It is also reflected in the way his in-house team of eight permeate the business, seeking to act as a true partner and to make a real difference to their colleagues. Their efforts were recognised when the team won the ACC’s 2019 Small Legal Team of the Year award.

Pacific National is one of Australia’s largest rail freight companies, with over 3500 employees. The company’s key values are Safety, Accountability, Integrity and Teamwork; all four are reflected in the activities for which the in-house team was recognised.

In this interview, Beck shares insights into:

  • the team’s award-winning projects;
  • his views on in-house counsel strengths and what the profession could be doing better; and
  • his lessons learned.

Staying Safe Physically And Mentally

Given Pacific National is moving thousands of items across the country by rail, safety is a huge priority for the business. Not just physical safety, but mental wellbeing, too. The Pacific National legal team conducts safety training for the leaders responsible for workforce safety, helping them to understand their responsibilities and find solutions for their obstacles. This includes training the company’s Board. The team also champions RUOK Day and their Chief Corporate Services Officer is on the board of TrackSAFE, which focuses on reducing traumatic rail incidents such as suicide.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the in-house team was well-placed to deal with some of the safety issues that arose. They had already established remote working systems and ‘inclusivity catchups’; these are 1×1 coffee breaks sponsored by the company to encourage relationship building and inclusivity. Nonetheless, when the pandemic hit, the challenge was to ensure connectivity and wellbeing was maintained. Regular, if not daily, virtual team meetings quickly became par for the course and the inclusivity catchups are now conducted remotely.

On the logistics front, when all domestic borders closed, Pacific National was potentially unable to transport freight from one state to another, ensuring valuable food and other supplies were reaching destinations like supermarkets. The legal team joined senior business managers in working closely with the government to find a solution. Needless to say, rail freight was soon deemed an essential service.

Streamlining Operations and Efficiency

Beck’s team works hard to deliver on and exceed the business’ expectations, and each lawyer is aligned with and integrated into the business’ operational teams. “We really work on relationships and creating a grassroots level of interaction with the business,” he said.

In line with the business’ ‘accountability’ value, the team has undertaken significant improvements to contract processes in the business. These include:

  • simplifying and reducing the number of legal templates the business needs to use down to five;
  • reducing legal team involvement in low-risk activities, such as procurement valued under $250,000;
  • updating commercial and HR templates so the business can self-service, speeding up the overall process and reducing the legal team’s workload;
  • implementing a new billing system to ensure billing is accurate and in line with tender agreements. This also saves having to negotiate with new legal vendors for each matter; and
  • establishing a legal toolbox, which includes workflows and guidance notes and coaching to non-lawyers. For instance, on how to use certain documents, and what issues to look out for when using them (e.g. when setting up a non-disclosure agreement).

In-house Counsel Strengths and Weaknesses

Aside from the obvious skills that a lawyer should have, such as attention to detail and strong communication skills, Beck identifies three strengths he believes any in-house counsel should possess.

  1. Adapt your style to who your audience is. “You need to be able to adapt your style easily and quickly,” he said. “This is most valuable and effective when providing advice in a way that the businesses will best accept.”
  2. Understand the business’ priorities and decide how you can best honour these priorities; and
  3. Recognise the importance of people and wellbeing. “We don’t do it enough as lawyers, generally,” Beck said. While working in-house is supposed to provide more flexibility and work-life balance than private practice, this isn’t always the case. “There’s much more to ensure you have the right level of connectedness, engagement, satisfaction and keeping people motivated. When it comes to wellbeing, you can never take your foot off the accelerator.”

Beck suggests that lawyers who become managers would do well to have people management training. He would like to see people management essentials incorporated into law degrees as an elective subject, and for businesses to offer management training and coaching to lawyers as they might other operational managers.

“When you manage people, at some point you need to stop being a lawyer and spend more time being a people manager,” Beck said.

Focus on Compliance

Another area Beck believes more in-house counsel should focus on is compliance. He feels it is easy for legal teams to fall into the habit of managing business-as-usual work. But, given Rio Tinto, AMP, and the various Royal Commissions, legal teams must share their understanding of compliance matters and ensure that the business receives this message.

“It’s about focusing less on commercial outcomes and ensuring compliance is being maintained,” Beck said.

Andrew Beck’s Lessons Learned

Beck is proud of his team and how they have come together, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. He said they are working better than ever using the tools they have available to them. He shares these two key lessons learned with his team and other in-house lawyers:

  1. Never underestimate your sphere of influence. “Don’t not do something because you think you can’t or because you believe you don’t have the kudos or the authority,” Beck said. “People are responsive to new ideas, no matter where they come from.”
  2. Play the long game with your career. “Everyone has ebbs and flows in their career, but a career is a marathon, not a sprint. We can get caught up in our setbacks and they can get you down,” Beck said. “So find what gives you energy and really focus on it.”

This year’s ACC Australia Corporate Lawyer Awards will be announced at the 2020 In-House Legal Virtual Conference, November 16 – 20. Click here to learn more and to register for the conference.

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