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The business skills in-house lawyers need

‘You won’t recognise what you’re doing today ten years from now’
Bill Deckelman

The GC’s role is in fundamental transformation.

It’s no longer sufficient – or relevant – for the General Counsel to merely provide legal advice and associated services to management. Instead, they must become a credible and trusted strategic player, fully aligned with business goals.

With this mind, CLL teamed up with Globe Law and Business to host the webinar, The business skills in-house lawyers need on 5 October.

Moderated by Dan Kayne, General Counsel (Regions) at Network Rail and founder of the O Shaped Lawyer initiative, the event benefitted from truly global insights.

Sharing their views and speaking from experience were:

  • Dr Catherine McGregor, founder of London-based Catherine McGregor Research and author of Business Thinking in Practice for In-House Counsel (published by Globe Law and Business, August 2020);
  • Bill Deckelman, Executive Vice President, General Counsel of US headquartered IT services company, DXC Technology, the business created by the merger of CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation) and Hewlett Packard’s Enterprise Services business;
  • Kevin von Tonder, Senior Adviser at Cognia Law in Cape Town, South Africa and former General Counsel, Legal Shared Services at oilfield services provider Schlumberger; and
  • Maaike de Bie, dual trained (US and UK) lawyer and Group General Counsel and Company Secretary at easyJet, who joined the event from Stockholm.

On leading transformation, the panel spoke from a fascinating range of viewpoints, yet all focused on the theme of people in their contributions. Maaike, who combines the GC and Company Secretary roles, talked about the importance of creating an environment for team members to thrive and then acting as the enabler that drives the process. She starts with the ‘Why’ – looking for the real purpose of teams and making people comfortable with who they are, both as individuals and as team members.  

For Bill, now into the fourth year in overseeing the integration of two merged businesses, allowing people to express themselves is key. For this to be effective, you must know your people well before you start a transformation process and build their career paths into it. Remember too, that major change is iterative and takes time. It’s important, therefore, to continually restate the end vision and give individuals opportunities and space to spark their passion and creativity. The potential of this to inspire others is huge.

Catherine urges leaders to allow team members to align to a transformation in their own way. Different individuals may approach the process in ways that are personal to them, and therefore quite different to the way management expect. Be ready to accommodate variations of this nature.

Kevin believes law schools need to start preparing students now for what the role will look like in the not-too-distant future. The future GC will be less ‘custodian of legal issues’ and more ‘facilitator of business strategy’. Accordingly, the standard law degree, as currently structured, is too heavily focused on the technicalities of law. Other skills are needed. Similarly, businesses should consider the future of the GC role when recruiting graduates and ‘put people before process and technology’.

Such are the breadth of skills and organisation-wide involvement of the modern legal function that Maaike envisages team members being able to transfer their skills into other departments and non-legal roles. Indeed, so multidisciplinary is her team that several members are specialists in areas other than law.

The panel shared a common theory on why many GCs are resistant to change or slow to push for transformation. Lawyers, they all agreed, are trained to be right. They simply cannot get it wrong. They take the ‘if it isn’t broke…’ approach and fear the costs of failure. This is at odds with the iterative nature of innovation, where the shiny new thing rarely appears fully formed, but emerges from a process of ironing out mistakes, imperfections and rough edges.

Looking at the changing role of technology, Bill is convinced that machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will make change inevitable in the GC role. Just as social media and mobile apps have brought about change unforeseen just a decade ago, incoming technologies mean most people – in-house lawyers included – will not recognise today’s ways of working by 2030.

Kevin highlighted the way many law firms use technology to make their offerings ‘sticky’ to their clients such as by way of client-specific portals/apps. He sees this increasing as technologies provide new ways to innovate and enhance their services.

However, just as her teams and their roles are becoming more ingrained in the wider business, so too is technology for Maaike. ‘Let’s not call it legal technology. It’s technology,’ she said.

In summing up, Catherine spoke of a variety of the measures in place at the businesses she profiled while researching her book. Many readers are likely to pick and mix from these examples to arrive at the formula that works best for them. Undoubtedly, there will be change and it will be human centred. And it will recognise the value of a whole range of professionals – including non-lawyers – in legal teams.

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