In-house counsel as business partner: How to be the perfect GC

On the first day of The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference, speakers focused on the qualities that CEOs look for in their general counsel and why in-house counsel need to be more commercial. 

The two-day event sees in-house lawyers and general counsel gather in London to discuss best practice, trends and challenges.

Cranfield School of Management’s Paul Hughes kicked off the sessions with a presentation called ‘when being a good lawyer isn’t enough’.

“In-house lawyers add value by understanding how to add more value and why it’s important,” he said. “The subject matter of in-house innovation has been lingering a long time. There is a shift towards in-house lawyers becoming business partners.”

One of the biggest trends heralded as gamechangers for private practice is the competition provided by big accountancies. This is not something that in-house counsel should ignore, according to Hughes.

“Accountancy firms are looking to grow their business, but are struggling to find new things to sell,” he claimed. “The accountants are coming – you have to understand how much cash these people have. They are wealthy and ambitious and they want more.

“Private practice believe that they are selling us a complex solution but in fact they are selling us a product.”

Becoming more commercial in their roles is the biggest challenge for in-house lawyers, Hughes explained.

“The challenge isn’t that you are too commercial, it’s that you’re not commercial enough,” he said.

“Lawyers can do four things. You can produce legal work, at increasingly less cost to the business, you can knowingly do it in a way that decreases the bottom line margin, and you are providing a service to an organisation that allows it to develop a greater value proposition.”

Trust is a key requirement for CEOs seeking general counsel, according to HS1 CEO Nicola Shaw. 

“I want to know that you can do your job. I have to trust that you are a good lawyer,” she said.

In order to determine whether an in-house lawyer has the right fit, Shaw claimed that she put their knowledge to the test on an area of the law that was not their speciality. “I would ask them what they would do if they were an in-house lawyer advising on this,” she said.

This experience allows her to determine whether someone is “a true leader, someone I want to work with”.

“Having confidence to be strong in an interview conversation is important,” she added. “The best GCs I’ve worked with are those who can move from a deal to an issue to a merger that will take place in a couple of years. That’s absolutely what a CEO is looking for.”

Follow the event live on Twitter through #IHBP15