If you want to be a member of the Executive Committee (Exco) which is the main operational senior leadership meeting, there are a few things to be aware of.
There is a long running debate on whether the GC should sit on Exco or not. A rough estimate would suggest that in about 50% of cases the GC is a member of Exco and this is an increase on ten years ago. As the GC’s role steers more to matters of governance it is seen as useful for the GC to be a member. However, it is not essential for the GC to be a member in the way that the Chief People Officer should be a member.
Alternatively, it may be safer that the GC remains an adviser (and hopefully a regular attendee) in order that they retain their independence in advising Exco. As a member and a decision maker the ability to retain independence is much more difficult and often the reason that the GC and Company Secretary are very rarely Board members.
Given your need to act in the best interests of your client (the organisation) but with a higher regulatory standard (rightly) imposed upon you, you need to ensure you act independently and objectively at all times in working with Exco. What you must do though is bring a wider lens than just being a lawyer - at the top table you will need to know the business generally well, be able to ask good, well-informed questions and give opinions outside the legal remit. That being said it is important to remember that you are primarily there for your legal expertise: I recall one GC being very frustrated that the CEO wouldn’t listen to him on matters of strategy even though there was a perfectly able Strategy Director present. You wouldn’t want the Marketing Director advising on legal matters – or at least I hope you wouldn’t – so it is important to stick mainly to your (legal) brief and opine on other matters only when invited or needed.
Ian White and Simon McCall - In-house legal consultants
The best answer is to ensure that this is specified in your role description before you start/when you are promoted – after all how can you add wise counsel to the business if you do not know what the business is doing, planning to do and getting wrong? “An access all meetings” mandate is a sensible part of this. There is an interesting discussion around this here.
It is also much easier if you also own risk, compliance and/or the corporate secretary roles (although if you are not doing those already, please do make sure that you properly understand what is involved and are properly on top of the detail before you do.
If this is not possible then try to get hold of copies of the Terms of Reference for each meeting type and seek to identify something within those terms of reference (or that is missing from them) that means that an in-house lawyer will add real value – perhaps intermittently at first – by being there.
Remember you can be “present” (listening in and able to comment if asked by the chair) as opposed to “attending” (a formal decision maker in the room) and sometimes being “present to listen in and learn” – perhaps as part of “learning your new role and the new company” can then lead naturally to attendance over time
If none of this works then seek to find reasons to be presenting something relevant to the committee regularly and build from there.
Your value “in the room” comes in three forms – (1) performing your role, (2) specific business knowledge that you have that others in the room might not (but be careful not to breach confidences or show people up for their lack of knowledge – remember you are there to add value and not to flaunt your knowledge), (3) your wider business sense.
All three are valid in the room but remember to be clear which one you are contributing each time and do it sparingly – a few clear sentences only not minutes of comments – less is more.
Also think about your total “share of spoken time in the room”. Other than the meeting Chair, it is good for no one – including you - to have more than your fraction of the meeting time (i.e., six people in the room for an hour 60/6= 10 minutes max speaking time, preferably much less). So, if you have a lot of your role that you must do in a particular meeting (e.g., presenting a paper) try to be as limited as you can with your other comments in the rest of the meeting; but if there is not a lot of your role content in the meeting, then you can perhaps say a little more.
Remember that your time is scarce and so you should only want to go to meetings which are really useful to you and to the business otherwise you will be using your time uselessly (and other people will also quickly see this).
Above all, get your boss involved in seeing the value that you can add and helping you to get into and stay in the room – but then remember to show them, through your 1:1 why that has been useful for the meeting, for the business, for your team and for you personally.
Bruce Macmillan - General Counsel at Irwin Mitchell
Getting a seat at the table is like that brilliant song in Hamilton, the musical, when Aaron Burr realises that he's been excluded from the meeting and he's outside "The Room Where It Happens".
There's a bitter-sweetness to getting a seat at the table.
On the one hand, you wonder how you can steer the organisation to its commercial objectives without you, the expert being in the room, and helping the team interpret the map that shows all the legal and regulatory obstacles and how to navigate around them safely.
Then when you're in the room, you wonder what all the fuss was about when - in reality - much of time spent in meetings is resolving conflicts that most often derive from disagreements about the direction of travel of the organisation: "What ARE the organisations mission, values and purpose?"
Here are three insights from my 20+ years of being a lawyer outside and inside the room where it happens.
1. Serve deeply and with curiosity
What are your organisations greatest challenges?
What do the organisation's challenges mean in practice for each individual in the senior leadership team?
When you understand those challenges - the macro, company ones, as well as how your senior leaders are tackling them, what they're most worried about, you get an insight into how you can serve them with your expertise.
If you can help senior leaders solve their problems, you're onto a winner.
If you can help senior leaders anticipate the problems they haven't thought about, as well as helping show them the map and the path through, senior leadership will always want you at their meetings.
As a lawyer, I'm pretty sure this is something you're strong at.
The challenge for you, when you've got a seat at the table, will then be to decide which meetings you join serve you as well as the leadership team.
2. Relationships, relationships, relationships
Technical competency isn't enough.
We often think that we should hide parts of ourselves that show up naturally at home, or outside the office. But we've evolved to be social creatures, not just at home, but at work too.
Historically, our survival depended on being part of a community. Being excluded meant almost certain death from predators.
It's not as dramatic nowadays being outside the room where it happens, but our human wiring still makes us crave being part of a community, whether you think about yourself, or the leaders you're working with.
The different groups we slot into at work - divisions, functions, colleagues at different bands of seniority - these are communities, too.
How can you create a deeper connection in the communities you are part of?
What are the features of the community of senior leaders that you want to join at the table that you can be curious about? What might spark a human connection between you and them?
Perhaps some of the leaders like cycling?
Maybe they enjoy fine art, or the best children's storybook.
Be curious - genuinely - and you'll create deeper relationships by instilling the trust that comes with being part of a community where you and others are understood and heard.
3. Don't underestimate the power of being outside the room
Lawyers are hired for their judgment.
We help our clients make calls by helping them join the morass of dots in front of them. We help them connect the dots and see more clearly the path ahead.
Influencing how decisions come about is as important as being in the room where it happens.
It's not unusual to find the decisions that come out of a meeting have long been decided and debated before the meeting. And in some organisations the conversations to influence the outcome of the decision carry on after the meeting.
The point here is that there's already a lot of great work you can do to build the trust and connection with senior leadership outside of the meeting.
Serving deeply and with curiosity outside of the room is a big part of the approach.
Eric Ho - former in-house counsel and wellness coach
Demonstrate a genuine interest in the business and its priorities - look to contribute and give a view beyond your immediate subject area. Make an effort for your business colleagues to know you as a person - show authentic interest in their challenges and some of the issues you face. And simply ask - you won't necessarily be invited but you need to show an interest in the business and be prepared to contribute.
Chris Fowler - Chief Operating Officer - Legal, Rio Tinto
This can be really challenging depending on the structures. If it’s not already embedded, then it’s about seizing the opportunities to demonstrate the value that legal presence at senior level can bring. Firstly, never let a good crisis go to waste. But with a bit of diplomacy wash ups after a major flame out can be a good time to explore what input/oversight could have been bedded into senior decision making earlier – and the answer may be having the GC or one of the senior legal team on the Steering Group/Exec Board/Project Management team from the outset. And then to capitalise on that by being a pragmatic, strategic contributor…. gaming out the risks but also calling out inter-dependencies based on the view that the in-house legal team often have across different divisions.
There is also pro-active internal marketing of the legal function – this can be by running training for senior leaders on key areas of legal awareness (again it has to be punchy, focused on business priorities and not too long) or getting agreement to make presentations on talking points in the industry which have a legal aspect. A rival being investigated by regulators or hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons can be a good hook…” Here’s now to ensure what happened to Widgets PLC never happens to us…”
Building individual relationships with senior colleagues can often be a route in. Being willing to be the trusted adviser who invests time in getting involved in understanding the policy/strategic aims that underpin the request for legal advice can often lead to the in-house team being increasingly involved in decision making or strategic planning.
Rebecca Staheli - Head of Competition and Regulatory Law, BBC
The very fact you are asking this question shows that you understand that life in-house is significantly different from practising law in a professional firm. In-house law isn’t just about carrying out the transactional work of the organisation but becoming an integral part of the business – subject obviously to compliance with your professional obligations as a lawyer.
If you are to advise effectively in-house, you need to understand what is going on ahead of time, to be able to input to decisions and strategy, to have sight of issues which may impact the organisation now and in the future, and to know what is going wrong, first-hand.
None of that can be achieved if you are simply receiving instructions from someone else. They may not have spotted the legal implications. They may not understand contractual or litigation deadlines. They may be seeing the issue through the lens of their own position and may not wish to escalate it in case it reflects on their own work.
All of this means that you need a ‘seat at the table’ – but how do you get there? If you are starting a new role, you can of course make clear that you need to be there as part of your recruitment or appointment process. If that hasn’t been done, though, there are a number of routes to your goal.
You must, of course, bring the right people on-side. If you are the senior-most lawyer and report to the CEO or CFO, you can have that conversation directly and in person. You may find, though, that it’s helpful to have some rationale, which might include:
- Allowing you to understand and advise on key legal issues without delay
- Bringing legal insight to discussions to reduce legal and financial risk
- Allowing key legal deadlines to be met – and as importantly, not missed
- Bringing a strategic focus to discussions at the table
- Allowing you to play a full part in the senior management of the organisation.
Often lawyers tend to be reluctant to put themselves forward, but you should use every opportunity to put yourself forward. If a matter with legal issues is under discussion at the board, make sure you prepare the paper and offer to present it. Consider how you can get exposure at senior-most level, perhaps through individual meetings, offering training, or becoming part of cross-functional teams.
It’s possible, though that you may be joining an organisation which hasn’t previously had an in-house lawyer and is used to instructing external lawyers, effectively at a distance from the table.
Whilst you will want to deal with all these issues tactfully and respectfully, if you are to do your job properly – and comply with your professional obligations as a lawyer – you will need to be persistent and, if necessary, insistent.
Richard Tapp - legal sector specialist
You may have been lucky to get a seat at leadership meetings through your role. However, in most cases, lawyers find themselves needing to push for a seat at the tables that are important to them in order to get the airtime they need.
To get a seat at the table, senior people need to know who you are, and the value you bring to them and the wider organisation. It will be helpful if they know this before you start advising.
If you have a good working knowledge of how the organisation works and the risks and opportunities that affect business objectives, you'll be in a good position to decide how to get your name known by leadership. This will also be an opportunity for you to build positive working relationships, open up lines of communication and to reduce the potential for future conflict.
Think about your audience. Identify leaders you need to know who you are, and consider what they are interested in. This will differ from person to person, so it is important to have a clear understanding that you can articulate of the value you provide in the areas that are important to them.
You are in a good position as legal counsel. Leverage what you are already doing and build from there. Concentrate on developing what you are already doing even further. For example, do you have regular conversations that you can bring a different perspective too, or challenge assumptions? Can you socialise key workstreams or bring people together across the organisation to get your name out there? Can you surface key metrics of legal achievements as part of wider business reporting, such as contracts signed per quarter?
When engaging with senior stakeholders you want to leave a positive impression. Leaving a negative impression will only set you back further. It will be helpful if you have a good understanding of what is important to the people you are speaking to and how the organisation actually works in practice to achieve this. This will be different to what is written in strategy documents.
Listen out for 'pain points' in conversations and have a think about the issues that arise. Where I have seen this work well in the past, it has helped the Legal function to increase a feeling of trust and rapport in key relationships along with positive perceptions of the value Legal provide.
Think about how the people you speak to need to be communicated with. This will vary depending on their preferences and their role. People are more likely to have a positive perception of you if you meet their needs.
Some people need less direct communication. For people who have little interest in what you do and little influence on its outcomes, you'll need to keep them informed, such as through regular updates. For those who are very interested in what you are doing, but who have little influence on outcomes, you'll need to involve them as you go. You could consult with them, such as through meetings and workshops.
Some people need closer communication. You are likely to find people who have little interest in what you do (sadly), but at the same time have a very high influence on your chances of success. For these people, you'll need to engage with them and get them on board as much as possible, such as through meetings, open conversations and by shaping your approach in line with their needs as you go. See if you can minimise their role as a detractor from what you do. You'll find others who are very interested in what you do and also have a high degree of influence over your chances of achieving your objectives. You'll need to collaborate with these people, work really closely with them and have them input into your plans as you go. See if you can make these people your supporters.
It is also helpful to think about how people like to be communicated with. People are likely to receive what you have to say more effectively if you tailor how you communicate with them. This gives your message the best chance of landing. For example, are they results oriented? Do they tend to think through challenge or do they tend to prioritise relationships and collaboration? Communication preferences will affect what each person perceives, so you can tailor the way you communicate to better suit their preferences and meet their needs.
By thinking about your audience’s 'pain points', needs and communication preferences, you give yourself the best chance to have a seat at the table in senior leadership meetings.