“In committee meetings, do senior stakeholders call you by your name, or do they just refer to you as ‘legal’?”

Joanne Theodoulou, Neil Laventure, Amol Prabhu, Kent Dreadon

How can in-house lawyers be strategic advisers to their business – and respected as such?

That was the question that opened the second day of The Lawyer‘s In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference, with Mind’s Joanne Theodoulou putting the questions to a panel of GSK Consumer Healthcare Europe head of legal Neil Laventure, Barclays’ head of emerging markets (legal) Amol Prabhu and Telefonica’s director of legal affairs Kent Dreadon.

A poll of the in-house counsel in the audience showed the large extent to which in-house lawyers are not yet recognised as true strategic advisers by the board.

Prabhu argued that it is vitally important to be at the table when high-level discussions are taking place – and that if you are, you need to be viewed as an individual, not just defined by your job function.

Whether you are referred to by name or just thought of as ‘the legal department’, he said, is a good indicator of where your organisation is culturally when it comes to how lawyers are perceived. “Do people come to your for wisdom, outside of committee meetings? Do they bounce stuff off you?” he asked. “That is a good acid test of the way you are regarded.”

Building the trust and confidence of your board takes time, acknowledged Dreadon and unless you are very lucky, it is unlikely that you will walk into an organisation where you will be immediately looked upon as a key strategic advisor. Dreadon talked about the importance of moving into and taking ownership of the “quasi-legal space” that exists just beyond a GC’s traditional remit.

“We are trained to have deep knowledge of our area and it’s easy to stay there in our comfort zone – but it is stretching outside that area that will win you the respect of the business,” he said. “Brexit, regulatory change, the push towards compliance: these are all quasi-legal areas that a great opportunity for lawyers to lead.”

“Lawyers are in a unique position within their business,” added Pradhu. “In many organisations the individuals round the table are driven by their own politics, and different parts of the business can be quite siloed. The lawyers have a view of the business as a whole and by their nature are good at seeing the other side of an argument. This can make them invaluable strategic advisors.”

Key takeaways

  • Becoming a strategic adviser takes time. You will need to build relationships over a period of months and years.
  • It’s not all about you: you will need to build a team of capable, driven people. That will mean hiring talent and spending time to develop the lawyers who are already beneath you.
  • Culture starts at the top and you will need the support of the CEO. Think about putting dotted lines in place between your lawyers and senior stakeholders to help them get closer to the decisions.
  • Make the effort to take possession of the quasi-legal space outside your immediate remit to win influence and respect.
  • The importance of being commercial is often stated; the importance of ethics less so. Lawyers should show leadership when it comes to being the moral conscience of the business.
  • Assume nothing, question everything. People often speak very eloquently but do they actually know what they are talking about? Have the courage to question the data and assumptions that are being made.