OPINION: The value of soft skills for General Counsel, with Bhavisha Mistry

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A headshot of Bhavisha Mistry, who provided expert opinion for this article.
20 Feb 2020

Breaking down assumptions

Today we sat down with Bhavisha Mistry, General Counsel at Mawdsleys, to hear about her experience in the in-house space and her assessment of what more can be done to build diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Bhavisha starts us off by opening up about the fact that throughout her career she felt she had to work harder because of her identity as a five-foot-tall woman of Indian background, who achieved a senior position at a relatively young (she became GC for Missguided at 28).

Bhavisha asks herself whether she would have had to work just as hard if she had been a six-foot, white man. Of course, this is not supposed to take anything away from the many male colleagues that also face their own challenges trying to make it in the legal world, but it is definitely a reflection of the types of stereotypes and assumptions that many people have when they think of a lawyer.

This thought quickly moves us onto discussing the very rigid mould that one needs to fit in order to survive and thrive in private practice, which is something very vivid in Bhavisha’s mind as she thinks back to her time working in law firms.

Although the image of the lawyer as a suited, confident, middle aged, white man still has an impact on people’s expectations, the reality of working in-house is much more diverse. The legal culture interacts with the working practices of the sector in which the GC operates, creating a completely different set of advantages and disadvantages compared to private practice.

There is an obvious downside in being a GC, which is the fact that a GC cannot hide behind a phone or behind the name of a law firm. The client relationship a GC has with the business is much more personal and there is nowhere to hide. But this of course creates opportunities to get to know one’s client better and develop more personal, human relations.

A new type of General Counsel

This gives GCs and in-house legal teams an additional layer of responsibility to build those supportive relationships and to be seen by the business as a safe place, offering colleagues a friendly face they can feel comfortable approaching.

At Mawdsleys, Bhavisha is not only the GC but also responsible for HR, which allows her to use her legal expertise to build a workplace that truly respects and supports people. At the same time, she feels the soft skills she needed to develop to deliver her HR role do add value to the legal work she carries out.

Bhavisha feels very strongly about the need for all lawyers to develop soft skills to become better equipped to build positive relations with colleagues and clients, which in turn will create a better working environment and will have a positive impact on diversity and inclusion.

Often companies, especially in private practice, put a lot of emphasis on D&I targets but fail to address the underlying attitudes and prejudices. As a result, those target-led initiatives tend to have limited, if not counterproductive, impact.

For Bhavisha the key is tackling the root causes of prejudice and inequalities by creating spaces where individuals can connect at a deeper level and develop trust and respect.

Many companies she deals with are not from the UK. They can be European, Canadian or from Asia. This requires adaptability to be able to create good relations, especially in regions like Asia Pacific where GC roles remain more male-dominated compared to Europe and the USA, where there are increasingly more female GCs.

Bhavisha’s technique to overcome some of the assumptions people might make about her is to always make sure her knowledge and experience says more about her as a GC than her characteristics. She admits this shouldn’t be the case, but she has to do it to change the attitudes towards her.

Advice for the in-house sector

As we near the end of our interview with Bhavisha, we ask her if she has any advice to improve diversity and inclusion in-house.

She explains to us that it is difficult to introduce targets for in-house teams, both because of the small size (compared to firms) but also because the priority is to get people that can perform well within a much more diverse business. The key is building teams that are able to cope with the types of pressures that come from interacting with business leaders who often have a very different background and style compared to what lawyers become familiar with at the beginning of their careers.

The solution for Bhavisha is always treating people as human beings, to be approachable and to invest in building relations that will take down barriers and the prejudice.

GCs and legal teams have a key role to play to help creating workplaces where people feel supported and able to be themselves. This requires GCs to embrace their role not only as legal experts but also as people leaders and role models. To do that, the GC’s personality and background needs to be brought to the fore of their relationships with internal clients to help them connect at a deeper level with people in the business.