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Too much for one person: the GC role today

16 September 19

A general counsel and keynote speaker at the Society’s annual conference previews his talk by outlining the highly complex role of today's GC, and the importance of building an outstanding legal team

by Bjarne P Tellmann

Years ago, I recruited a talented young corporate lawyer with a sterling law firm background into a senior in-house leadership position. At a meeting a few weeks into her new job, she recounted her struggle to build a team, manage difficult clients, handle multiple and simultaneous crises and cut costs. She paused for a moment, before asking me quietly: “Bjarne, is there a manual that will tell me how to do this job?” This elicited a good-natured chuckle. Yet her question planted a seed in my mind: could we articulate a framework that would, in fact, help in-house legal leaders to accelerate their performance? 

The need for such a model has grown in the years since. The demands on general counsel (GCs) from the board, senior executives and other stakeholders have increased significantly. In response, thought leaders have raised the bar, painting bold visions of the new role for general counsel. In his recent book, The Inside Counsel Revolution, Ben Heineman Jr, former GE general counsel and senior fellow at Harvard Law School, calls on GCs to be both partner-guardians and statesmen.

Heineman’s vision is appropriate given the volatile and complex environment in which companies and their legal advisers find themselves. Globalisation, regulatory expansion and risk convergence have raised the stakes and made the job much more complex. At the same time, corporate cost demands have increased and are placing downward pressure on legal department resources at a time when the internal demand for legal support is increasing exponentially. There is unquestionably a need for GCs to be well connected, strategic partner-guardians, able to advise and guide on projects that underwrite risk, while ensuring that legal resources are aligned globally and organised effectively. To avoid going the way of the dodo, GCs must adapt to these new expectations. 

But how, exactly, does one adapt? 

Are you T-shaped?

The forces driving these changes come at a time when the legal profession itself is being convulsed by twin revolutions. The innovation revolution, driven by globalisation and technological disruption, is unbundling the work of both individual lawyers and the traditional law firm model, presenting the GC with both opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time a “professional convergence revolution” is arising from the recognition that good ideas are generated when people with radically different skills interact with each other in an ever more connected manner. That has increased the demand for “T-shaped” executives, who combine deep cognitive, analytical, or technical skills with broad multidisciplinary and social ones. Given their deep legal expertise and role as connectors, GCs are natural-born T-shaped professionals.

But in taking on a host of difficult new tasks, in addition to that of legal adviser, role overload is an ever-present danger. The many new responsibilities that the job entails are too demanding for any one individual to carry out successfully. 

To succeed in this new climate, today’s general counsel must effectively become their own chief executive – able to communicate, inspire and build outstanding legal teams, identify and anticipate risks, formulate and execute strategy, implement procurement and technology pipelines, control costs, ensure efficacy and nurture culture and talent. As a result, building an outstanding legal team is the GC’s acid test as a leader, and that will be the focus of my discussion. 

Beyond the present reality

While the vision of the GC as partner-guardian and statesman is both compelling and necessary, the current reality for most GCs is quite different. Crushed under a daily avalanche of role overload, cost pressures, recurring litigation, major deals and periodic crises, and facing the many challenges brought on by the twin revolutions, most have little time to figure out how to build outstanding legal teams or move toward an ideal state. 

A model can be constructed – in the sense of a structural design – to point you in the right direction, but you must tailor things to your specific circumstances. An all-encompassing universal manual would have so many decision trees that it would be both endless and useless. Instead, what I hope to provide is a starting point for discussion, a framework for building a team, and tools to implement a structure. 

I have to assume at the outset that you already know how to forge excellent relations with your CEO, provide sage advice, lead during times of crisis, and be a steady and reassuring hand for your board – along with tackling compliance and legal hazards, ethics, crisis management, citizenship, public policy or governance. These substantive skills are essential to your success; but you presumably already have most of them to have achieved the leadership role you currently enjoy. 

Team hardware and software

My discussion will be divided into three main parts. 

The first deals with the “hardware” – the hard, operational components that are needed to accelerate towards the global legal organisation of the future. These include aligning your operating and service delivery models with your core legal risks, appointing the right leadership team, restructuring your relationships with external providers, rolling out powerful new technologies, controlling your budget, and optimising your internal to external spend ratio. 

This is important because inside lawyers are often not good at these tasks and many do not like doing them. There is a certain tension between managing the substance and managing the hardware. A GC sometimes neglects the latter. They may lack the training to do it properly; they may also lack the time. GCs must focus on a seemingly infinite number of substantive issues that necessarily distract them from the business of running a department – and these exert a powerful pull. Moreover, even with the best operational support in the world, evaluating the appropriate cost of a matter will, to a certain extent, depend on the GC’s substantive knowledge of the matter itself. 

But it is the GC’s job to navigate this tension appropriately. It is critical that they calendar time to review and evaluate their organisation with the same seriousness that they take to performing at the highest level on legal issues. 

The second strand focuses on the “software” – the softer, less tangible but equally critical components of culture and people. Culture is the sea within which your talent swims. If your culture is polluted or suboptimal, you will lose people, fail to attract top talent and prevent those who remain from doing their best work. 

I will look at what is meant by culture, and whether it can be built from the ground up, along with how to improve the legal department’s subculture, in alignment with the broader corporate culture of the organisation, and the challenges associated with leading and motivating people. 

One question that sometimes comes up is whether the hardware phase needs to precede the software. My view is that it usually should, because it is generally easier to develop structural elements than it is to build culture and develop people. Tackling the hardware successfully will give you the credibility you need to take on the software. Of course, in the real world, you will likely need to do some of each interchangeably. But by emphasising the hardware first, you will obtain results you can use to convince others of the direction you want to take things. 

Running threads

Finally, I will consider two highly significant threads that will wind their way through your transformational journey. The first is change management. Ignoring the emotional and other impacts that profound change can have on an organisation is a surefire way to blow up your team, your change effort, or both. The second thread is strategic direction: making sure that at all times you know where you are heading. No one should set off into the great wide world without having a clear understanding of what their destination is and a decent roadmap of how to get there. 

Volumes have been written on these two threads, and time is limited. But the key elements will be presented to help you build awareness about the themes that will impact your initiatives. Before you embark, you should gain an understanding of the importance they will play in your success. 

Book now for conference

This year’s Law Society of Scotland annual conference, Leading Legal Excellence, will be held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Friday 25 October from 9.40am-5.30pm (registration from 8.30). 

Keynote speakers also include Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws QC, Ash Denham MSP, Minister for Community Safety in the Scottish Government, and Karyn McCluskey, chief executive of Community Justice Scotland.

In addition there will be a plenary session with a panel discussion on the future of the profession, and four sets of breakout sessions to choose from over the day, on topics including leadership, business and financial crime, vulnerable witnesses and accused, and LegalTech. Numerous exhibitors will also be displaying their services to the profession.

All delegates will receive six hours of CPD, plus access to watch all sessions post-event and online at your convenience.

For further information and to book, go to www.lawscot.org.uk/annualconference/

Bjarne P Tellmann is general counsel and chief legal officer at Pearson, and author of Building an Outstanding Legal Team (Globe Law and Business)

 

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