Beyond Legal: Today's In-House Lawyer Has More Tools in the Box Than Ever

Friday, September 7, 2018 - 15:58

 

At an ACC-hosted forum in Paris, Jean-Claude Beaujour, a partner with Paris-based law firm Smith d’Oria, and Veta T. Richardson, ACC president and CEO, discuss how law departments can provide and showcase the value they bring to the business.

For today’s in-house lawyer, delivering value remains the key to being an effective counselor to the business. The scope of delivering value, however, has expanded in recent years. As a result, the modern in-house lawyer needs far more than legal skills in order to successfully serve the company.

In May, ACC hosted a roundtable with general counsel (GCs) and chief legal officers (CLOs) from multinational corporations at France-Amériques in Paris. The law department leaders who convened that day offered practical advice for providing and demonstrating the value of the in-house law department to the business.

Some of the skills they find to be paramount include:

Strong applications of business knowledge.

We often hear that an in-house counsel must understand business operations. That is now a given. To succeed today, in-house lawyers must frequently apply this specific business knowledge. They must be ready to offer opinions on topics that extend beyond the law. Given the complexity of the legal and regulatory environment, as well as the importance of geopolitical events on the business community, almost all key business considerations today involve the law to some degree. Thus, the in-house lawyer is uniquely positioned to offer advice, legal context and risk assessments.

Another important consideration is to ensure that an in-house lawyer’s knowledge of the business remains current. For example, an in-house lawyer may have started his or her career in the industry. But with the pace of new technology and new regulations, past industry knowledge can quickly become stale. Per the advice of the GCs at the roundtable in Paris, it’s wise to regularly find a way to put yourself – and your law department colleagues – in the shoes of the business team. In-house lawyers should feel comfortable attending a sales meeting, participating in a call center training or finding another way to immerse themselves in the day-to-day of the business units.

Emotional intelligence, communication and strong relationship building.

Establishing close working relationships with colleagues means that these counterparts will turn to the law department as a solutions center when challenges arise. It will also lend new chances to proactively contribute to strategic discussions. One of the most significant ways an in-house lawyer today can assist the business is by alerting colleagues of upcoming changes that will alter the status quo. With advance warning, the business can navigate new challenges, reposition as needed and ultimately be prepared.

An in-house lawyer will be more successful in all endeavors with well-established “soft” skills, like communication and emotional intelligence. While many of these characteristics cannot be taught, seeking to strengthen relationships with colleagues will lend itself to opportunities for closer collaboration.

For the GC or CLO specifically, his or her position in the corporate structure is also key to having strategic influence. ACC advocates that the GC or CLO must report directly to the chief executive officer (CEO), be considered a member of the executive management team and have a seat at the boardroom table. Any deviation from these direct relationships harms the GC’s ability to raise red flags, explain risks and provide the most accurate legal counsel. This has never been more important than it is today.

Those who advise the company as outside counsel also benefit from a well-positioned general counsel. Together, the collaborative inside/outside team can provide better counsel to the business as a result.

Have an accurate worldview.

Given the location of our roundtable in Paris, many of the multinational CLOs who attended work for European-based companies. Their experiences reiterated what ACC research has found – it is less common for European GCs to have this permanent seat at the executive and boardroom tables. Similarly, it is less common for European GCs to report directly to the CEO. In these instances, it’s especially important to be aware of this extra challenge to strategic influence and seek opportunities to grow close with C-suite colleagues, demonstrate your business savvy and provide strategic, forward-thinking counsel.

Worldwide, 64 percent of all CLOs and GCs report directly to the CEO, showing there is room for improvement on a global scale. Even in the United States, where the highest percentage of GCs (70 percent) report to the CEO, we are promoting the “Age of the Chief Legal Officer” as a way to ensure that all law department leaders have direct access to set the company on the right legal and ethical path.

Be a strong advocate for your colleagues’ learning and success.

The most successful corporate law departments don’t revolve entirely around their attorneys. Instead, they include non-lawyers in training on the topics that impact business operations. In other scenarios, they create legal training specifically for non-lawyer colleagues. There are multiple advantages to this strategy: 1) Business colleagues gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the work of the legal team; 2) Training allows business colleagues the opportunity to use self-service platforms, as we often see in the contracts space; and 3) A wider knowledge of the legal workings of the company equates to time saved for in-house lawyers. With this newfound time, corporate counsel can participate more fully in business strategy, or just concentrate on the most high-value legal work.
 

In tandem with training other business colleagues, today’s GC focuses on talent development, succession planning and fostering the next generation of in-house lawyers within the law department. Most lawyers who are attracted to the in-house environment seek the dual business and legal focus that only corporate law departments offer. Thus, it’s important to facilitate skills, such as communication, public speaking, finance/accounting and project management, in order to ensure that your fellow in-house lawyers are also competent business contributors.