Ask what you can do for society

The GSK China row shows that lawyers should be more mindful of their role in a wider sense

Recent weeks have seen a stream of allegations of commercial bribery by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) employees in China. The evening news here in Beijing broke the story by announcing that four senior executives of GSK China, including the legal director, had been detained in connection with the investigation.

A few days later video emerged of a vice-president of GSK China in custody explaining how cash payments were funnelled to doctors. GSK, with a turnover of £759m in China in 2012, promptly issued an apology and committed to co-operate with the investigation.

This seems to be the first time a major bribery investigation against a multinational in China has been initiated by the Chinese authorities rather than foreign regulators – typically the US Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Chinese legal scholars frequently bemoan the fact – now no longer true – that multinationals in China face more risk from overseas regulators than from those in China.

Some commentators ask if GSK is being singled out because it is a prominent foreign company in China, or if the compliance issues are due to complexities of Chinese business etiquette. These are reasonable concerns, yet they are also superficial and distract from the gravity of the alleged violations. Moreover, they direct our focus to factors beyond the control of management, much less in-house or external counsel.

As an in-house lawyer working in China I suggest we redirect our lens towards ourselves and consider our contribution to the wider social environment. Yes, even lawyers are a part of the social environment. This shapes us and, although we often forget, is greatly affected by us. Indeed, as Peter Senge notes in the management classic The Fifth Discipline, a key to addressing challenges in a dynamic environment is to realise that “your influence is broader than the limits of your own position”.

Do we as lawyers conceive of our role in this broader sense – as shapers of the culture, norms and processes of our organisation, industry and society – or merely as part of a marginalised support function? Do we survey emerging risks facing our organisation or only focus on those items that reach our inbox as contracts, disputes or approval requests? Are we engaged and curious about business trends or intellectually distant from market reality? Do we assess the compliance commitment of business leaders or merely track their attendance at training sessions?

The concept of contribution provides a framework for us to apply our legal skills and other talents to the betterment of our organisations and broader society. By asking ourselves if we are contributing to changes we want to see, we evaluate our own contribution and measure ourselves against an internal standard. In so doing, we bring greater coherence and consistency to our lives, and likely lessen the chance that our organisations will be featured on the evening news.