GSK European consumer healthcare head of legal Neil Laventure talks about the strategic role of in-house lawyers and how to develop commercial awareness ahead of his panel session at The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner 2017.
How can in-house lawyers and private-practice best work together to drive efficiency and deliver value?
Without a doubt, the best way is to create win-win relationships from the outset and we try and do that by creating financial terms for the engagement that does not pit client versus law firm.
We think that the billable hour is not the best way to agree fees for larger projects. External lawyers are supposed to be our zealous advocates.
Yet, for a long time, we have compensated them in a way that creates a semi-conflict of interest in the way that the firm handles the matter. The longer it takes, the better. The more tortured, the better. The more documents to review, the better. That does not sound terribly efficient or a good partnership. Of course I am not saying that law firms do anything intentionally to ramp up bills. But the inherent bias is there.
At GSK, we think there is a better way. Create a flat fee, value based payment for the work and (if appropriate) include a success fee for an outstanding result. Firm and client are completely aligned. Good value is provided. Relationship is repaired. Trust is restored. It is fundamental to a good relationship and a good result for all.
What should the balance be between focusing on developing your commercial awareness and focusing on developing your legal skills be?
Both are important, clearly. Good business knowledge- i.e. a strong understanding of business objectives and the surrounding business context – is vital because it shapes the way good in-house lawyers assess risk.
I think it’s really important get to know the drivers of the business successes and failures, so that we can advise in the most relevant, practical way. Spending huge amounts of time arguing over a point which doesn’t really matter to the business isn’t just a waste of time, it annoys people. Likewise if we don’t understand the business, we might miss something important when we are immersed in the detail.
Developing technical skills is of course fundamental, but if you can layer strong commercial awareness on top of that, then you can hit the sweet spot of providing well-judged, practical, concise advice using the same language as your internal clients, and you will become a trusted adviser even beyond the pure legal issues.
How can in-house lawyers be more strategic in their role?
In-house lawyers need to apply flexibility, creativity, diplomatic skill and a spirit of collaboration to identify viable options that address the concerns of stakeholders and to define a clear action plan for implementation of agreed solutions.
Being more strategic means thinking longer term and not just fire-fighting from one day to the next. Thinking ahead and planning for the future can save you time in the long run.
So we need to think ahead and plan for different outcomes, but be prepared to react quickly and change tack if necessary. I think in-house lawyers are naturally good at analysing longer term risks when we have the time to do so, so we can definitely add value in that context at a leadership team level.
The challenge is to think about legal strategies to create opportunities as well, and add a measurable value to the business success.
You are speaking at In-house Counsel as Business Partner on the 6-7 November: how would you describe the event in 3 words?
Networking, learning, innovation
If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what do you think you might have done instead?
I love working in-house and being a part of the success of a business, so maybe I could have gone into a commercial or business development role. In my dreams I’d be a golfer or cyclist!