Brexit will change almost every facet of British business. Legislation governing employment, product design, importing, exporting and much more will come under the microscope and, in many cases, change.
This means your role as an in-house lawyer, is potentially pivotal. Many of the comments made here will also apply when looking at other jurisdictions such as the US, EU, Russia and Turkey that are experiencing substantial change now and for the foreseeable future.
Time for the strategic navigator
In times of political, economic, legal, regulatory and commercial uncertainty, a business needs a "strategic navigator". They need an expert who will help them plot the best, or the least worst, route through the uncertainty and then continually replot that route as the journey continues.
Brexit, the UK’s decision to exit the EU following the referendum on 23 June 2016, has created this uncertainty. And in-house lawyers can justifiably lay claim to the "strategic navigator" role.
This is because they’re already in a position that requires them to:
- Provide efficient, effective and continually improving law departmental operations; and
- Widen and deepen their business knowledge, process knowledge, IT systems knowledge, financial acumen, people management and development skills.
Simply being current on relevant law, while essential, is no longer sufficient on its own for any in-house lawyer tasked with delivering law in a business context. Being able to anticipate and plan for change is critical.
… because "when you assume, you make an ass of u and me." So goes the adage. And in the next few years, we’ll need to identify, test and retest everything we currently take for granted about our businesses’ operating models.
This means questioning old certainties, business planning assumptions, strategies, trading partnerships, target markets, regulations, rules, laws, contractual commitments and much more besides.
And the answers will, in all probability, mean making changes across our whole organisations regularly for the foreseeable future.
What does that mean for General Counsel?
Clearly, Brexit presents a new challenge to in-house lawyers. So much of what will change is legal or regulatory in nature. It will affect:
- Your company;
- Your employees;
- Your customers;
- Your suppliers; and
- The bodies that regulate your organisation, its customers and its suppliers. These include regulators of:
- Data privacy;
- Patent and trade guarantee;
- Customs and excise;
- Stock market trading; and
- Financial services.
So, there’ll be a great deal of detail to keep on top of, both nationally and internationally. The breadth of issues you’ll be involved with will be wide-ranging and they will compel you to think about how you will:
- Handle your clients’ and employees’ personal data across Europe;
- Register company IP and trademarks;
- Supply your goods and services; and
- Relocate staff across borders under current and anticipated future arrangements.
You will need to monitor legislative change across all these areas constantly to fully understand their potential impact on your organisation’s contracts, renewals, negotiations, licences and permits.
This means you’ll need to be organised. You’ll need a system that can process, analyse and store the deluge of new legal, regulatory and contractual information that will come your way and make it readily available when you need it. You’ll need business acumen to understand how and when this knowledge will affect your organisation. And you’ll need the skills to communicate your knowledge, insights and interpretations of new legislation effectively to the right people at the right time.
If you manage an in-house legal team, borrow time from people in other departments or retain external advisers, your strategic navigator role will extend to sharing this responsibility and influencing those who support you. These relationships are a big part of the service you provide in your organisation and help to lay the outdated caricature of the ‘reactive, responsive, rubber stamper' of the in-house legal function to rest.
A great opportunity for strategic in-house lawyers
Many good businesses build current, one year, three year, five year and sometimes longer forward-looking strategies and plans. Most make commitments to customers, suppliers, landlords and employees (in the form of incentive plans and pensions) for longer periods still.
In most cases, changing domestic legislation affects just one of these areas at a time. Brexit, is different. It will affect everything simultaneously. Rarely will so many legal, regulatory and contractual uncertainties have affected a business’s strategies, plans, risks and commitments all at the same time.
This means the in-house legal role, performed well, has never been as pivotal as it’s going to get in the coming months and years. You’re uniquely placed to help your organisation:
- Calibrate and recalibrate its risk appetite;
- Identify opportunities and challenges to business strategy and plans;
- Define margins;
- Develop country-specific product and service roll outs; and
- Put retrenchment plans in place.
So, if you position yourself as strategic, agile, proactive and empathetic to your organisation’s needs and drivers, you’ll have a huge role to play as you help navigate it along the route to success.
Of course, as with all opportunity, the flip side is risk. In this case, it’s the risk that weak in-house law teams could fail their businesses substantially and visibly.
Minimise that risk by preparing now.
Following Brexit, UK businesses are bracing themselves for a period of unprecedented change, most of it imposed by new law. In-house lawyers need to prepare themselves, their teams, their processes and their systems to deal with a raft of new information. Those who can interpret this data into commercial insights will able to position themselves as "strategic navigators" in their organisations and help them embrace Brexit – and make a success of it.