Hilary Ross

From tech to managing people, general counsel are at the forefront of transformation within their companies. To explore these issues, DWF partner Hilary Ross talked to The Lawyer.

Three of the biggest topics for GCs have always been: finding time; what good leadership looks like in-house; and diversity and fairness. In 2020 GCs had to turn on a sixpence, switching from physically present to virtual; and from virtual to hybrid. How has the Covid world changed how we approach those three topics?

Until Covid, transformation in the legal profession has been like a curate’s egg; there has been some genuine innovation but often there has been very little or it’s been poor. The pandemic has created a burning platform which will trigger the much needed progress. Changes which were going to take ten years to come in were implemented in a matter of days or weeks.

People are at the heart of this transformation as is the issue of inclusion. There are many general counsel who see this as central; are frustrated with lack of progress and are looking for greater transparency. Covid is making tech and the use of data seem more second nature and both of these will also be a factor in new efforts to drive greater equality.

Should we begin to talk about the opportunities as well as the challenges in reshaping the in-house function? 

Over the last few years in-house teams have been under significant pressure to deliver more for less which has meant many GCs and their teams have had to fire-fight with little time to consider the “jobs to be done” and deliver outcome driven innovation. GCs have had to deal with laws that change daily, which differ across jurisdictions and more recently local areas, the wide range of business opportunities and challenges which accompany Covid, diversity & inclusion and Brexit as well as the business as usual issues. 2020 has been utterly relentless and has given GCs no option but to consider how to transform what and how they do it and ultimately deliver legal services differently.

Many legal teams have had to really consider their purpose – essentially for survival: the recent example of the US company, Benjamin Moore outsourcing its whole legal department is a move many legal teams will view as an existential threat. Operational excellence and innovative ideas are key for legal teams to ensure they are seen as central to business operations. This may lead to some hard decisions on what legal departments look like; existing structures can no longer be assumed in the future and the same will be true of external suppliers.

This has led GCs to re-evaluate the role and function of their external law firms. What are they doing or can they do to assist? GCs need genuine value-add and we are not talking about free secondees and use of meetings rooms. They need law firms that provide business solutions not a legal analysis. Law firms need to understand it’s not just a burning platform they find themselves on, the inferno is raging, licking at their faces and soon the old platform will no longer exist. If they want to survive they need to adapt now – no delays, no excuses, no half-hearted attempts.

There’s a much more acute sense of collaboration and partnership with external lawyers, but to make it work well both sides need to build in some time to reflect on collaborative practices. How do you see this emerging?

GCs have always recognised the benefits of working collaboratively whether it is with their internal stakeholders, their suppliers or their peers. However collaboration is hard, particularly if the culture of a company is focused on the individual who ultimately delivers the result rather than the team that helps enable the result. It can be even more difficult when trying to promote collaboration amongst lawyers who by their very nature are extremely competitive individuals. Nevertheless GCs are re-evaluating collaboration, the starting point for which includes creating framework:

  1. When is collaboration needed as obviously not all jobs need collaboration?
  2. What are factors affecting collaboration across their internal legal teams?
  3. What are the practical steps and best way to do this?

This requires a fundamental understanding of the depth and breadth of the panel firms’ capabilities, the projects which require collaboration and what collaboration looks like in practice. Panel firms are good at appearing to collaborate but without the smile of collaboration ever really reaching their eyes. So how do you motivate collaboration? The best suggestion I’ve heard from GCs is to start collaborating on something that isn’t legal. They don’t mean building a tower from spaghetti but rather a business issue were they work in a collaborative group to brain storm ideas. Interestingly, the GCs do not view this as being restricted to partners but includes juniors and other experts within the law firm.

We are also seeing some novel approaches to collaboration between the business and the individual teams, ranging real time feedback for the law firm and the in-house team to D&I mentoring schemes.

And what about establishing new collaborative relationships in a virtual realm with external advisers? Do you see some interesting moves in this direction?

Covid has been the ultimate litmus test of all those promises and grandiose statements in law firms’ pitch documents. For many GCs it has brought into sharp relief whether their legal suppliers are true partners and operate in a way that can support them going forward. The law firms are under the microscope as never before. 

Covid has created the opportunity to bring people together virtually bringing them closer to their panels and foster greater collaboration amongst the panel firms on a global basis. However it has given GCs an insight into what non-panel firms offer as it is easier to log into a zoom seminar or round-table than it is to travel across time to meet people you don’t know.

Some GCs have taken the opportunity to carry out panel reviews during the pandemic; some are utilising certain panel firms more while others have been waiting until calmer times. So it is clear that how law firms have responded to the pandemic will ultimately determine their future with their current clients and indeed future ones. “What did you do during the pandemic to support your people and your clients” will surely become a standard question in future pitches.

It’s telling that in such a digital, tech-enabled world there is such a movement that reclaims the human side – I’m thinking of Rob Booth’s Bionic Lawyer group and Dan Kayne’s O-Shaped Lawyer project. Where do you see this going next?

GCs are the first to recognise that change starts with their people. Tech is not the silver bullet nor is creating larger and larger legal teams. It starts with re-wiring their in-house teams. Whether it is the O shaped or the Bionic lawyer, Rob Booth’s and Dan Kayne’s reworking of our profession have produced the route map for creating more rounded, resilient lawyers who are outcome driven.

Closely linked to the last point is the growing remit of GCs in driving cultural change projects across business. Whether it is green/ethical investors, the circular economy, Black Lives Matter or the #metoo movement, society is imposing huge pressure on all businesses to change and keep changing. GCs’ skills lend themselves to understanding the big picture, the risks and the comprehensive nature of the solutions. Their roles are as integral to businesses as historically finance has been.

GCs are looking at what needs to be done, how it should be done and who needs to get it done. Although not the silver bullet, technology and the use of data can be part of the solution when its used in conjunction with a team of O-shaped/Bionic lawyers who have key human centred skills as well. The focus is now understanding in detail what work is being done by the legal teams and questioning the why and the how to create different solutions which free up the legal teams time without compromising on quality and enable their internal stakeholders to self-help.