GE Capital chief legal operations counsel Leigh Murrin talks about the importance of aligning  priorities in the legal department with those of the organisation ahead of her session at In-house Counsel as Business Partner next month.

Leigh Murrin

What does the law department of the future look like and what skills will be valued most?

The law department of the future will be more automated than today and will harness data to underpin decisions and enhance the value of the team. In-house legal teams will include data analysts and technology specialists to enable the intelligent use of data that can be extracted from legal documents and utilised in a myriad of ways.

Project managers will also support execution of strategic projects such as large-scale corporate re-organisations or technology and process rollouts. AI systems, chat bots and data extraction tools will manage routine enquiries and tasks. They will also monitor changes in laws, regulatory decisions and market trends in a targeted and relevant way to ensure organisations are truly apprised of the headwinds they are facing into.

In turn, lawyers will be expected to take the output of these tools and deploy their expertise on complex matters and to anticipate future issues before they arise. Creativity, agility and clear thinking will be the characteristics of successful lawyers. There will be no place for “tick the box” mindsets in the law departments of the future.

How can in-house lawyers be more strategic in their role?

It is critical the priorities and resources of the legal department are 100% aligned to the purpose of the organisation. If you work for a business, it is essential to truly understand how your business makes money; the reasons why your business may have lost money in the past; and the contributions made by the legal team in each scenario. In-house lawyers generally have two underlying purposes: supporting earnings growth and ensuring legal risks do not undermine profitability in a manner that is not understood or agreed to by its stakeholders or which may be illegal or reputationally harmful.

To be strategic, it is necessary to understand the cost/benefit/legal risk tolerance for your business and the market in which it operates. An element of contract risk (for example) may be acceptable in a commercial contract between sophisticated counterparties if the long-term profits justify it.

There is no value to be gained here in “over-lawyering”. On the other hand, the reputational damage and financial penalties in a retail business from not treating customers fairly may mean that such risks cannot be justified and enhanced legal analysis is required.
In all cases, strategic thinking necessitates the courage to speak your mind and say “no” if the proposed action does not align to the underlying purposes. Always ask yourself if the lawyers are deployed on activities that truly make a difference to the bottom line. Use this kind of language when you speak to your business colleagues about why you are doing what you do. Overheads such as external counsel fees and investments in technology will be acceptable to them if they see a return on that investment which is aligned to the business strategy.

It is worthwhile doing periodic surveys to discover if your perception of the role played by the legal team in supporting the business strategy is aligned to your colleagues. Do they agree that the lawyers are working on the right things? You might also consider a short-term time management study to get more clarity on what the legal team is working on. For example, if the survey tells you the business wants the legal team to work on more customer contracts but the time management study tells you the legal team are instead bogged down with low-risk sourcing contracts, that tells you that the resources of the department are not aligned to the strategic business goals or, possibly, its legal risk appetite. Be flexible and prepared to change if you don’t like what you hear.

Tell us two truths and one lie about yourself (in any order)

  • I was a champion baton twirler.
  • I was among the 2,400 people who stood on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square as part of Anthony Gormley’s One & Other public art project in 2009
  • I was stuck in an elevator once with Boris Johnson

Leigh Murrin is one of the 60+ speakers at In-house Counsel as Business Partner on the 6-7 of November. For more information on the summit, a copy of the agenda, or to enquire about tickets to attend, please contact Kenan Balli on +44(0) 20 7970 4017 or kenan.balli@centaurmedia.com