Episode 14: Natalie Salunke, GC at Zilch, on making law more human

Meet Natalie, the O-shaped lawyer and General Counsel of UK-based Zilch. O-shaped what? O-shaped lawyer. Meaning Natalie is not only the GC providing legal advice - she's also a modern leader with a human-centric focus on her work and co-workers. Join us today as Stine and Natalie dive into the world of modern in-house legal.

Welcome to Inspiring Legal, the podcast for inhouse legal. 

Get insights, learn from peers, life lessons from some of the most influential GCs. If it's related to inhouse legal, we cover it. For more inspiration, go to openli.com/community.

Stine: Welcome back to another episode of Inspiring Legal. My name is Stine and I'm your host, and today I'm joined by Natalie. Welcome, Natalie.

Natalie: Thanks for having me.

Stine: Pleasure. So you're gonna hear more from Natalie in a second. Natalie is all about putting the human into law. And what that means? Well, that's what we'll be talking about today.

But before we do that, Natalie, can you maybe just tell the listeners a little bit about you, your background, and why this area is on your radar, your passion, and something that you are working a lot on?

Natialie: Sure. So I'm a general counsel in-house. I trade as a lawyer in the city at Taylor Wessing, but moved very quickly into an in-house career. So it's quite unusual at the time to do that. That was back in .

So quite a lot, it wasn't really the usual way for people to enter the profession. So I think I've always been quite conscious of the fact that perhaps I don't have the traditional training that a lot of lawyers do, that operate in the commercial and corporate world. And equally, I think there's a way of providing legal services in-house that's quite different to being in private practice, which isn't always about just the technical skills and deigning legal advice on others, but more how you win people over and how you get people to care about legal and to care about including you in their decision-making to make better decisions for the overall business. So I think having that unique opportunity so early on in my career to enter the corporate world as a junior lawyer allowed me to play a little bit more with those ideas of, well, why me?

Why does somebody want to come to me? Why does somebody want to come to me rather than legal as a concept? And so therefore, I think those human skills have always been a really important part of my career.

And I think we do see a bit of a lack of them in the profession sometimes, a lack of empathy. And I think that's taking its toll on the profession. If we don't do more about it as legal leaders, then we're going to lose talent and we're not going to have really great people joining us and lifting the talent pool and the profession further.

That's something that I'm really passionate about and would love to talk about a little bit more today. And that's what we're going to be talking about. So putting legal and humans together, well, that's something we've always been doing.

Stine: So when you talk about making it more approachable, relatable, making it more you, can you tell us a little bit about why that started to be such a center point for you in your career?

I think it goes back to, as I said, moving in-house quite early on and being afraid that I didn't have the necessary skill set to add value to my organization. So I think you're trained in private practice to feel as though you aren't allowed to rise in the ranks unless you've done a certain amount of practice or hours or experience. And so I was quite self-conscious about that when I started in-house in terms of, well, I've only had two years of experience.

So therefore, what do I know? Why would somebody listen to me? Do I have the credentials? And then I quickly realized that actually it was more about getting people on side and you don't always know the answer, but it doesn't mean you can't find it out.

But it's about having those touch points, those conversations, those openings and almost acting as a sales person for the function to get out there, have those confident conversations and not always be reacting to what the business is asking of you, but being proactive in terms of going, well, hey, I noticed this happened the other day. I'd love to see if I can help.

And so I think that's what really started me thinking slightly differently from the more traditional private practice approach to law, which was much more about, hey, I'm gonna give some technical legal advice and I'm going to advise you and maybe you'll make a decision on the back of it to collaboratively working with my colleagues to make their lives easier, but also inadvertently making my life easier because if we understood each other better and we had good processes or we had playbooks or we had just smarter ways of working in those open dialogues, then you can almost predict what your colleagues are thinking and they can almost predict what you're likely to advise them.

So it just seemed like a smarter way of doing things. But as I said, back then it was a bit more unusual because generally people would be super senior and having done quite a long tenure or a number of different years in private practice moving in to an in-house environment.

So I think it was just that blend of, as I said before, trying to show that there was value in me being there as me. And we could talk about that a little bit more as to what that means. And just making sure that I felt like it was a fair relationship to be in.

So I was getting something out of that for my learning and development and exposure to different stakeholders and learning. But equally, I was able to add value. And what you realise is that actually a lot of law, there's quite a lot of common sense to it as well as the understanding of what the law says.

It's all very well knowing the law, but if you can't articulate that in a way that somebody is going to understand or it resonates with them, or you can't influence them to do the right thing, then what's the point in knowing the law?

It's just something that's in your head. You alluded to it. So what does it mean? So what for you today as the general counsel, so how do you work with making law more human, putting human into the law, and guiding your employees and coaching them on being more approachable, of giving better advice, understanding the business better? 

Stine: So how have you incorporated it into your daily work?

Natalie: I think it's about being available, but also we use the word approachable and not trying to mystify law. I think a lot of lawyers don't realise that we're already put on pedestals for the type of background and training that we've had.

So people have a certain expectation as to what we are and what we bring to the table. So we don't need to be insecure about it and try and prove that people should listen to us. I think that comes across as very defensive and also quite haughty and it alienates people around you. So that's not really a great approach. I think it's more about showing that it's a discipline or it's a lens that you look through the world, is the legal lens, as it were. And we're here with somebody who's a seasoned professional in that area to opine in terms of what our view is on something given that knowledge base.

And as I said before, there's no point in having that knowledge base if somebody else can't receive it. And so I think the key for me is having those conversations at a human level. So not hiding behind email, not hiding behind these different barriers, but being there in person, showing who you are as who you are, as well as just a lawyer. I think a lot of people get quite hung up on providing legal advice.

What does it mean to provide legal advice? And there's non-legal advice. People don't look at the world like that, other than lawyers. Nobody else thinks of the word non-lawyer because the world is full of non-lawyers. And the fact that we coined it in that way is actually quite arrogant and also just completely just doesn't really understand the environment in which we're operating in.

So I think we've got to remember the world is full of non-lawyers. The majority, in fact, are non-lawyers. So it's down to us, the minority, to educate in what we do. So when we get frustrated about the fact that somebody doesn't understand what we're telling them or they're not following our advice, it's probably our fault because they're not going to have the same understanding or come from the same place as us because they haven't been trained in this way. 

So for me, that's been the key theme throughout my career is that demystification of the law and also not hiding in the ivory tower and using our own insecurities. And I think a lot of lawyers are insecure because we're perfectionists and we find it very difficult to not be perfect to everything. And where there's a vulnerability, we don't want to show it. But ultimately, everybody has their vulnerabilities.

People in our organisations don't define themselves in such strict terms as we do. So they don't have those existential crises of why am I here? And oh, are they listening to my legal advice? And should I be advising on non-legal things? No, but then I could be liable for something that I've said. And nobody's thinking like that.

It's just how will you add value to your organisation? How are you seen as a help and not a hindrance to those around you? I think that's a key piece of being any human in society. You know, what are you there for? You leaving the woodpile higher than when you found it or you're somebody that's just draining the world of its resources. And maybe that is you, but ultimately, you think about why lawyers exist.

We're here to facilitate. We're here to advise. We're here to look at scenarios and provide a judgment.

And that in itself should be a helpful process. It shouldn't be something that people don't look forward to or don't want to engage with because actually there's so much value we can add, but it's down to us to show that actually that's what we are here to do.

Don't you think a lot of lawyers are kind of putting on a mask? Don't get me wrong when I'm saying this, but you're educated to find flaws. You're educated to assess risk. That's where your mind is. You're looking for loopholes. You're looking for flaws. And so when that is how you're being taught, this is how you're working.

When you then go to work and that's what you're kind of trained to do, you're putting yourself in the back end and that lawyer at the front end because nobody is like that in their daily work, like at home, sitting on the couch.

You're not sitting and thinking, hmm, is this television a really good television? Should I be looking at the liability clause because it could get on fire tomorrow? And if so, where is the lawn venue and what are the indemnification clauses that we have in place? Nobody's thinking that in any other concept. Then you go to work and things change.

Or lawyers do their work at home. Yeah, that's true too. I think some people are just like that. I think you have risk averse people out there. I guess it's not just lawyers, it's compliance professionals, it's risk professionals as well. I guess when people are trained to look at the world a certain way, then yes, it can become quite fanatical almost and quite difficult to deal with.

I think the key there is about, and this is where that idea of being more human about things comes into play. And I don't know if I mentioned before, but I sit on the steering board for an organisation called O-Shaped. And what it's trying to do is there are certain different qualities beginning with O, one of which is optimism, that have been identified as key human skills that professionals, and I'll say lawyers because that's where it started in the legal profession, but where professionals can really prosper by being cognisant of the natural behaviours that they will exhibit by virtue of the type of person they are or the profession that they're in, and the ways of pivoting those to actually make them better at what they do and more human. 

So as I said before, being very risk averse or being very aware of the risks around you can make you risk averse, or it can make you quite pessimistic. So how do you counteract that? What's the super skill to counterbalance that?

Well, being optimistic. So how do you emulate optimism to balance that natural pessimism that may be there so that you're not constantly being the person that says, no, don't do that, or that's going to be risky, or something that's always phrased in the negative sense, but actually it's empowering you to go, well, okay, if that could be the state of affairs, how can I make it better? Or how can I fix it?What suggestions or solutions can I come up with?

So I think it's those ways of tricking your mind into knowing, well, okay, let's talk about what our default positions are or how we behave, and then how are we going to make that better? And are we going to be brave enough to do that? And I think a lot of this comes down to the environment in which you work in and the people around you, and it does need to be relatively safe, or you need to be brave about it in order to do that. And maybe some of us lack a little bit of, maybe there's too much fear there preventing us from doing it.

However, if we do be brave and we be courageous leaders, then perhaps those changes can become more part of the norm. And some of those negative associations with behaviours of lawyers, if you just articulate it, can be turned on their head. And actually it can be, well, yes, well, a lawyer is going to be looking at the world like that.

However, because they are so intelligent and emotionally aware, they're able to counteract this. And if we could have more people recognising that lawyers are very well-rounded professionals, then as I said before, perhaps more people will want to be lawyers. Perhaps people will respect us more. Perhaps we'll enjoy what we do more. There'll be less mental health issues. There'll be less people leaving the profession. And we can be proud to be the legal professionals that we are. 

Stine: You talked a little bit about the sector and law firms and the pressure and the way that they're working. 

How do you see the state of affairs today when it comes to law firms and the way that people are working? 

Natalie: I think it's really difficult. There was a study recently on private practice. And one of the firms was saying how it's expecting more billable hours out of their employees and that people are not getting paid. And that people are not giving enough. And it's quite disappointing to see that there's still that fixation on measuring the output of a human in a very binary sense. And I think that's the issue. 

I think the problem with law firms is that they're still operating on a billable hour model. So it's all very well, it's using that as an internal metric. But if you're driving your whole agenda based on profits, how are you really ever going to be client focused if you're not incentivized to be more efficient and more effective? But equally, how are you going to get people doing high quality work for minimum input if it's all about the number of hours they're racking up? 

And so you see this issue with that model, which isn't working for the client and it isn't working for people in there because they don't actually get to have the downtime that they need to refresh their minds to then be able to be fighting fit the next day. I think also there's been a real issue in terms of the way that people are getting remunerated, especially in some of these large private practice organizations in the city or international organizations.

So we see now NQs on salaries of six figures plus. And so if we think about the quality of work that somebody at that level can achieve, is it worth six figures? I don't know, probably not. So what are these individuals being paid to do if ultimately the output of the work isn't going to reach that six figure number potentially? And it's going to be giving all the hours that got sent to effectively sacrifice themselves to make that economic remuneration some work.

And so now you've got people who are sort of falling into that trap of getting used to salaries of like that, then can't get out of it, but then have to keep giving more and more of their time, which isn't, as I said before, working for anybody because we're not getting the quality of work always, we're not getting the best out of people. And people experience mental health issues or burnout and that's not a sustainable profession.

That's not human. We're treating people within our profession like commodities. And some clients are guilty of treating their firms like that. I have to say sometimes I've had to fall into that trap because of my stakeholders. And I do vehemently apologize and try and make it a more sustainable human interaction. But I think there is this expectationthat if you're going to pay for something, you get the earth with it. But maybe that shouldn't be the case. Maybe it should be, well, actually, we're not just paying for convenience or to have everybody work all the hours God sends.

We're actually paying for something that's a very highly regarded skill. And in that, that has a value attached to it. So I don't think the profession is really helping itself. So it's down to all of us within it, especially on the client side in-house, not to fall into that trap of commoditizing our external advisors. As long as they are also willing to be human about their delivery as well, then you can actually create a better working relationship and something that feels fairer and more sustainable and more enjoyable ultimately.

Stine: We did a survey in the Openli community recently. And what that survey showed was that the majority of in-house legal teams are overloaded with assignments. They're over-staffed. They're over-stretched. And many were struggling with work-life balance.

And on top of that, also stakeholder management. So there seems to be also maybe, not to kind of like put a finger on every single in-house legal team, but there seems to be an increasing pressure on in-house legal teams as well. And that is within the companies. That's not coming from external partners. But simply by, I think, an increase in assignments and expectations and legal teams having difficulty to say no and building bridges. 

Stine: What is your kind of assessment, not in terms of your own company, but more just how are you seeing that evolve? 

Natalie: I think it's like any cost center within a business. There's always pressure to perform. There's always pressure to perform to the costs or the value that the business has attributed to that particular function. So I don't know whether we need to do a better job internally of selling the value that legal can add so that we do get the budget to do what we need to do in the way we need to do it.And I think there's something in that.

But equally, are we providing legal services in the most efficient way? So it's funny. I think there's a group of relatively innovative general counsel heads of legal in the London community. And we all attend the same conferences. We all speak at them. We all chat to one another. And because we all think similarly and we've all been innovating for the majority of our careers, we believe or feel or forget sometimes that not every lawyer thinks the way that we do.

So the fact that we're blending human skills and people skills with technology and process, that kind of trifecta. Some lawyers haven't even thought about because they're still thinking, well, I'm a lawyer, I provide legal advice and I shouldn't have to think about the cost or the budget. So I should just be, I should be able to have the tools that I need to give the competent legal service that I want to. But I think that's where that movement from an advisor.

And I think the private practice world doesn't always allow individuals to develop those commercial awareness skills, ultimately business skills. But as soon as you move in house, like every other business unit, you have your P&L, you have your budget and you have to stick to it and you have to just get on with it.

And so maybe it's the fact that lawyers haven't had enough practice of doing that as part of their remit to feel comfortable and still think that they're a product of their output. And actually you're a function and you should be operating like a function and all those skills and tools that you utilize or levers that you kind of leverage, you're the sum of that whole part. 

Stine: So when you then look at optimizing, enhancing and improving your in-house legal team, how are you going about it? 

Natalie: Well, I think you've got to focus on the people that you've got in your team if you have any people in your team, but even that's focusing on you as an individual. So if you are a sole counsel, mapping what your skills are and what your weaknesses are and what your strengths are and the things that you enjoy, the things you don't enjoy. 

There's no point in outsourcing to a law firm all the fun work. What's the point in doing that, right? Equally, what's the point in only doing stuff that you know, you'll never learn anything. So I think you've got to start with what the people in your function want to do and achieve while they're here and understanding that. Then you want to understand what the business is trying to achieve and then it's a marriage of the two.

Luckily, most in-house teams have a budget at least and it's not always as big as we want. But I think a lot of the other functions are talking in terms of metrics. And so you don't have data to back up your views and assumptions and assertions. How are you going to convince somebody? You can't always win on emotion alone.

Sorry, that's my washing machine telling me it's finished. How lovely is that? It sings me a song when it's done. There we go. So, you know, there's that data that's really important to help you understand where your deficits are and what you might need to do to achieve what your organisation ultimately wants you to achieve. And there seems to be this thing, and I feel it sometimes as a lawyer, that, you know, maybe we all did maths when we were younger, but as soon as we become wordsmiths, we seem to think that we can't cope with numbers anymore and numbers are scary.

But ultimately, the world's driven by numbers and data now. So we've got to- And companies. Well, exactly. So we've got to be speaking the language and behaving in a way that every other department behaves. And yet again, I still think people think, we're advisors, we get to behave in this particular way, which just doesn't resonate with the business. So, you know, I do think that those two key elements are really important.

Once you know the lay of the land, I think another thing that a lot of - There we go, there's my dog as well. You're right on cue, mate. I think a lot of lawyers forget that actually there are other ways of doing things that, as I said, don't just relate to them on their own. So it's not just about knowing the law now, but it's about knowing about legal process and legal design.

And we hear these buzzwords, but ultimately it's about, you know, back in the day, we would have been in a library looking at books to try and find precedents or to try and find case law. It's all online now. We've got tools like, you know, practical law or LexisNexis that feed this information to us.

So luckily that's not involved in our practice anymore, but we still need to understand how to research. But then what are the tools and technologies out there as well? And that's something we need to keep an eye on, is how do we deliver what we're doing in a more intelligent way?

And so it's not just about knowing the law, as I said, it's about knowing legal tools, legal resourcing that's out there. And so junior lawyers coming into the profession, they should be trying to understand. And, you know, I do teach at the University of Law and we teach the modules about the in-house profession and PSC courses. And a lot of it is focusing more on these more human skills that aren't just related to technical skills, but it's just other things that can help you to be a more effective advisor or lawyer ultimately.

Stine: You talked about data. And I know that there are so many out there in-house legal teams that are sitting and struggling with that exact element, finding the data, knowing what data to look for, and then extracting the information from it. 

I don't think the extraction part is the difficult part, but many are simply struggling with what data should we be measuring the legal teams on? What data should we be using to showcase to the business? 

What I normally suggest and start off with, especially is focusing on metrics that are related to supporting sales, just as an example, or maybe looking at the contracts or looking at the amount of impact you supported the business with when it came to setting up a new company or setting up that new kind of product line that the product teams were working on.

So Natalie, can you maybe share some of the data that you're looking at for your team? 

Natalie: Yeah, so I think mapping out what you're working on is really important. So all the different business areas, the types of contracts or query that it is, I hate to say it, so I just criticise private practice for this, but bear with me, recording time can actually be really useful. So as I said, an internal metric, it's not used as a stick when I do record time, it's actually used as a tool to help understand what we're spending our time on. And ultimately, if we need more resourcing or support, that's giving me that data. So I think that's a really good way of just knowing what you're doing.

I think it's quite difficult when it looks for like deal value. So are you really adding the value that's related to the deal every time you touch a deal? Probably not. So is that a true metric? I don't know. Equally, when you're, I think even just managing the spend itself, the challenging bills or challenging spend or asking for fixed costs upfront, getting that data in terms of, well, because I was savvy enough to say I want this at a fixed fee, actually it would have cost me three grand more.

I've saved the department or the bottom line three grand. So I think all of those things are quite good. Reputational management of settling claims early, that's quite a good one. And you normally get quite a bit of data that if this went to trial, this is what it would cost the organisation. By being involved, by being savvy, we finished it at an earlier time.

So I think those are kind of quite common metrics. I think the key thing is just think about how your organisation measures its success itself. So look at what other departments are measuring success on. Because there might be some common metrics that for your particular sector or your particular company are seen as important. 

So for example, when I was at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, they're known for having NPS scores. So it's all about customer satisfaction. So one of the things we wanted to measure to the same degree that they do in store, which is the question is, were you entirely satisfied with the way that we dealt with your query?

And if it's not a five, it just doesn't count your score at all. And so it's quite a difficult metric to keep a really high score for, but you're actually allowing yourself to be vulnerable and be measured in line with your peer groups. And so people feel like you are part of the business, one of them, I shouldn't be saying them, because you're part of an organisation, but rather than just the legal team has its own way of operating. So I think that's quite key when it comes to metrics.

It's not just about showing the value in the way that serves your own purpose necessarily, but it's also about presenting information in a way that other functions are presenting information. So you are actually akin to them. And then certain asks shouldn't be, well, don't lawyers just do X, Y, or Z?

It's, well, actually functions need tools to support what they're doing. You know, customer service has a platform, finance has a platform. Why wouldn't legal have a platform? So then it becomes just much more akin to what other business departments are doing. And I think trying to be special or different just doesn't work in a company. 

Stine: So when you then think a little bit about who you get your inspiration from, who is giving you those good ideas or adding to your little toolbox of amazing goodies to pull from. 

What would you, or who would you say is inspiring you?

Natalie: I think there's probably a couple of answers for this. I think in terms of the legal world, I definitely have to say it's the community of fellow GCs and heads of legal in that sort of London hub. There's such a group, a large group of individuals that are so giving of their time and knowledge and aren't competitive about it, are very giving, very open source about it.

And I think that's really important. So the peer groups and the networks and speaking to other people and reaching out to people I think have been really useful. And just having those conversations, even though a lot of what I've kind of done has kind of happened by osmosis or dare I say it common sense speaking to other people who are doing a similar thing or the same or slightly different, not only is quite validating in itself, but it allows you to enhance what you're doing as well.

So there's continuous conversations with the right professionals in the profession I think are really inspiring. I think going more to the human side of things I'm not sure if everybody's a fan of this guy, but Simon Sinek, I'm a big fan of who is talking about the more authentic and modern style of leadership, which so many businesses still need. I don't think we are living in a super modern world of philanthropic entrepreneurs who are doing the right thing necessarily.

I think we're still seeing that capitalism is that capitalism game. And there's always a place for lawyers in that because we are wearing that ethical hat. And we are there to try and advise what's the right thing to do and not just what is always the legal thing to do or the wrong thing to do. So I think reading books by authors like him who are really talking and pushing for that agenda and also talking about younger generations in a way that isn't patronizing.

I get quite upset when I hear more senior legal professionals talking about malaria and HIV or talking about millennials or talking about the youth or the younger lawyers. And it's, you have certain expectations or you don't exhibit certain behaviors or skills. And I feel sometimes I have to remind them that, you know, we talk about how you grow resilience.

And a lot of the ways that we may have grown resilience is by going through horrible times. But why would we want our children to go through a horrible time to learn to be resilient? And yet we think that people in the profession should be going through horrible times or they're not authentically learning resilience.

And I think there are other ways of learning things without it being horrible and without replicating some of the wrongs of our pasts. So I don't think that makes people who are entering the profession more wavy or less resilient or they don't have the staying power. 

I think they just have more human expectations of what they should expect out of life in the profession. That we, if we want the profession to grow and be sustainable, we need to encourage and we need to act upon. Otherwise we're just skipping a generation and it'll be down to the new people coming in to try and fight that fight. But we should be helping with that.

If we're true leaders, we should be leading the way or paving the way at least so that when they do get here, their expectations are met. 

Stine: And on that note.Thank you so much, Natalie. It was truly inspiring. And thank you so much for sharing your tipsand your thoughts on making legal more human.

Natalie: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much for listening to Inspiring Legal. Remember to subscribe and if you want more information, you can always go to openli.com/community.