General counsel: Don’t waste a good crisis

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GCs are turning a business crisis to their benefit, by making the legal department’s skills and knowledge indispensable, developing junior members’ skills, and networking with internal departments and external lawyers.

Lisa Mayhew, managing partner, BLP: We’re discussing times of turbulence and how they create pressures and challenges but also opportunities – whether it’s Brexit or unforeseen circumstances, sometimes there are opportunities. What are you experiencing? Do you feel that you’re living now in a time of greater change than perhaps a year ago?

Monica Risam, general counsel and company secretary, Aviva UK Life: I’ve not been in-house for long, but long enough to have seen that the only constant is change, such as the financial crisis – being in financial services for the past six to seven years has been turbulent. Being American and seeing the model where the GC can be an adviser as opposed to a support function, I can see the opportunities to step forward and take ownership and leadership.

On Brexit, our board is looking to us to understand how we should approach it. Whether it’s leveraging our colleagues through the Association of British Insurers or sharing within our own community it can be quite good for thought leadership, even if you don’t know the full answer. It’s an opportunity for us to show some get up and go – we’re the ones behind the scenes thinking about the next few years. Our function has galvanised the Brexit programme – we haven’t created a big programme with a budget, but it shows we’re thinking about the issues. We’re looking at opportunities to be gained from Brexit. You can be a thought leader and that’s kind of fun.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: I know from my Brexit experience the role we played as a legal team when nobody knows the answers. You can remind people that nothing’s going to change just yet, but you can show you’ve got your arms around a lot of areas we have to think about, whether it’s tax structuring or making sure if you have a European trade mark you can start thinking about local registration – the whole spectrum of stuff. And there’s regular communication with the business, saying ‘stay calm, we’ll communicate with you when there’s news’. So by being calm yourself and getting the business to stay calm rather than people running around with their hair on fire, they can make better decisions.

“Brexit is just another wave on a sea of turbulence that we’ll be living through in our careers” David Foley

Sarah Linstead, general counsel London and head of corporate finance, Société Générale: On Brexit there’s no legal work to do as such but everyone is looking to the lawyers to lead the process. Actually, we can impose ourselves on that process in terms of helping the thinking and co-ordinating it, and map it out. It’s refreshing to have that role.

Fergus Speight, general counsel, Royal London Group: I’ve benefited from having done a lot of groundwork before any problem arises by making sure I understand who does what in the business, what is each business area’s strategy and who the movers and shakers are within the business, so there’s a lot of collaboration going on ahead of anything hitting. So when the problem lands you don’t have to explain who you are, you can seamlessly move into it.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: Would you agree that applies across any crisis or turbulence? The better integrated the legal team, the better the advice is going to be.

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Fergus Speight, general counsel, Royal London Group: You need to move beyond just responding to instructions and instead understand when there is a space to move into without stepping on the other people’s toes.

Monica Risam, general counsel and company secretary, Aviva UK Life: It’ll give us an opportunity to collaborate more with our community. We all tackle the same issues, whatever your industry or sector.

Ian D’Costa, general counsel, Close Brothers Asset Management: Is Brexit the exception to the rule? It’s a slow burn and nothing concrete is happening now. I’m quite new to in-house life and you want to get involved, but it’s quite a task given the amount of legislation in financial services. At least Brexit gives us a chance to catch our breath.

Tim Ashby, group general counsel and company secretary, Land Securities: It’s important to be enthusiastic. No business is going to survive without change or innovation and you have to embrace that. You can’t be scared of it.

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: Moving away from the Brexit side, when you think about our careers, the speed of change has been huge. Look at phones, smartphones – change and turbulence is a fact of life. And Brexit is just ­another wave on a sea of turbulence that we’ll be living through in our careers. In terms of 24/7 we’re more available than our parents were – now everyone is looking at the flexibility of working practices, and increasingly looking at automation. We have to embrace that change. The legal team has the opportunity to do that because we think in a more strategic way, rather than always being knee-jerk, profit-driven. It’s a cliché that the legal world is slow-moving and conservative – it’s not true.

Monica Risam, general counsel and company secretary, Aviva UK Life: And, of course, there are the millennials who change jobs every two years and don’t mind. It feels like we’re in the middle of that generational shift and we’re the ones making that change happen.

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: Yes, whatever we currently think is the right answer will change, so we need to engage. What is the business plan for the legal function in the next 10 to 20 years?

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Tim Ashby, group general counsel and company secretary, Land Securities: Twenty or 30 years ago the people leaving private practice to go-in house were the architects of change – they created these roles from scratch. We’ve benefited from that change.

Lisa Mayhew, managing partner, BLP: There’s a great line about never wasting a good crisis to do things you want to do. With turmoil in the market, does it embolden you to push initiatives through that in a more business-as-usual [BAU] environment you may not have got ready support for?

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: There’s a broader challenge for the corporate world now, which is that no-one trusts an expert – we saw that in the Brexit debate. People don’t trust the corporate world but do trust their peers to tell them what they think. Take TripAdvisor, they will trust people they’ve never met before more than experts. This is bringing huge change throughout the business world. Old business models are changing quickly depending on your sector. Rather than Brexit, which is a two- or three-year issue, this is a generational change.

Nicholas Evans, head of legal, Baring Asset Management: Look at people in your team and consider the experiences they need to develop as lawyers. When you have moments of crisis and turbulence and your function is in the spotlight – that’s invaluable in developing your people’s experiences. Especially if you look at financial services in the past 10 years. It can really develop them as lawyers.

Lisa Mayhew, managing partner, BLP: Yes, the Brexit scenario is a slow burn. But contrast that with the financial crisis where there were ­liquidity issues and you had to advise overnight and decisions had to be made very quickly – that was a different scenario. Regrettable as it was for the world at large, it was good experience for the lawyers in place at the time.

Monica Risam, general counsel and company secretary, Aviva UK Life: Yes, as the saying goes, calm seas do not great sailors make. You ­really can grow from those experiences.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: It’s a ­really good point – whenever there’s a crisis, it’s always a time when the business looks to lawyers, and the lawyers can really add value, whether it’s litigation  or unforeseen events. The team development point is a good one – it does no harm and is of great benefit for the team generally if you bring in junior members to see that process. They learn from either fact-finding or observing. In a world where retaining people for a long time is harder and harder, it’s of great value.

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: Do you see that as a key part of the role of a GC in a crisis?

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: Yes, it’s a learning opportunity – you can sit doing 50 to 100 contracts a year but big pieces of litigation – ­believe it or not, even in a company like Uber – are relatively few and far between. If there’s an issue with the dimension of public policy, the dimension of PR and the legal dimension, being able to ­expose other members of the team to how the ­confluence of those elements can get solved for the business is absolutely of value.

Nicholas Evans, head of legal, Baring Asset Management: For young lawyers, seeing your management groups working under tremendous pressure is hugely useful – you see how the role of a CEO or chief financial officer is really used. A lot of time you provide advice but when you’re in a stress situation your advice is critical, so being in a situation where you see your advice have real input is invaluable.

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: It is the role of a GC to take that more strategic view when you talk about the business – models and profits come and go, but reputation endures and lawyers perhaps have the skill to take the longer term view – and that’s a key role.

Monica Risam, general counsel and company secretary, Aviva UK Life: We’re often the ones who are the conscience of the business.

Steve Roberts, chief counsel procurement and wholesale, BT: One of the natural barriers to this is BAU work. At BT, where a number of people head up different legal functions in different parts of the business, all the things we’ve talked about are expected at the senior level. But how to give yourself the oxygen to do that? How do you do BAU work more efficiently – say, like using automation?

Matthew Gasser, legal director and company secretary, BNP Paribas Real Estate: On the automation point, three or four years ago technology companies didn’t have a strong understanding of how we could benefit. But in the past 18 months there have been a lot more products and systems made available, and we’re beginning to see much more that can help us. For contract automation there are lots of systems out there that make a difference.

Antonio Suarez-Martinez, assistant general counsel, GSK: I’m interested in bringing innovation into the in-house market. Our GC has made it his mission to phase out the hourly rate. We’re using a tech platform to watch active bids from law firms, and we’re using analytics to quantify work, but not at an hourly rate. I’m a new entrant to the in-house market and I’m seeing a wider expectancy on in-house lawyers to improve and enhance the business and reduce expenditure.

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: Yes, there’s a place for private practice law firms to show some innovation, to be the people that provide some turbulence. Law firms are always willing to talk about fees and alternative fee arrangements and they think that’s the cutting edge of technology and innovation. There’s a long way to go ­before computers are writing contracts.

Rhian Deakin, general counsel, Foster & Partners: No, it’s about using analytics so we can use our judgement.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: I’d always take the attitude that I should replace myself as much as I can to free up space for bigger issues.

Daphne Yao, general counsel, Ovo Energy: Why do we constantly doubt our own value? We talk about value-add but we are the value. With automation I don’t buy a contract management system for the legal team, I see a procurement system that will work with everyone

Catrin Griffiths, editor, The Lawyer: When you’re looking for ideas, is there a way of sharing those models? Innovation doesn’t have to be funky new inventions, it can be a lightbulb moment on how you run something. You mentioned community sharing – are we coming to a stage where in-house lawyers are calling each other up and asking for advice?

Monica Risam, general counsel and company secretary, Aviva UK Life: You’re right, we have to do the day job and the big-picture stuff, and there are only so many hours in a day. We have to be more efficient. On the community point, three years ago we set up our insurance sector summit – we didn’t involve our trade bodies, we just got senior lawyers from the insurance sector together on Chatham House rules, sharing good practice like how we organise our teams.

Rhian Deakin, general counsel, Foster & Partners: We’ve done something similar. It’s galvanised me seeking other views from construction, engineering and architecture companies, and it’s proving very useful – though Chatham House rules need to apply.

“Crisis management can benefit a team – they learn from the process, and in a world where retaining people is getting harder, that’s of great value”
Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: Some of this grows out of necessity. I was the first lawyer at Uber in the UK – when I was at Telefonica I had lots of colleagues to bounce ideas off or a law firm to ask. There are a whole bunch of businesses out there with just one or two in-house lawyers, so where do you go to bounce ideas without paying £450 an hour? At one of The Lawyer’s events earlier this year I was chatting to Lisa Gan at Made.com and we had this idea – well, it was mostly Lisa’s. So now I’m in a group called Disruptive GCs that includes about 15 or 20 GCs with small teams. We have an instant messaging group where you can ping questions about, say, transactional services or company secretarial services. Recently, someone asked if anyone had implemented e-signatures in their company and if anyone had any recommendations of who to use. That’s an example of a collaborative community arising out of necessity.

Tim Ashby, group general counsel and company secretary, Land Securities: Networking or sharing has been around for a while but there are different ways of doing it now. Instead of sending out a few emails you can create a community and personalise it. The real importance here is that the questions are not just fact-based but more general – talking through managing difficulties in a small team or how to navigate through a position on something. And it’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but about making sure you’re not missing anything.

Lisa Mayhew, managing partner, BLP: Business culture has changed so much, but also the preparedness to be a bit vulnerable and show to colleagues or the community you might not immediately have the answer to something, and say ‘I want to run it past colleagues whose judgement I trust’. Is there a shift?

Fergus Speight, general counsel, Royal London Group: Yes, people come to the lawyer to get certainty and an answer. Things have changed in that you can now say ‘we don’t have the answer’, or that the answer isn’t here in some form of certainty and it’s no longer taken as a sign of weakness.

David Foley, legal director, British Gas: Sure, but what the business hates most is the ‘it depends’ answer – that’s not what they want. The value of an in-house lawyer is to come up with something and not sit on the fence.

Catrin Griffiths: Do you have that ­luxury – going back to the turbulence issue – to give that more textured answer? And at what point do you know you can trust your judgement in a situation – is it through seeing people who have mucked things up or seeing people who’ve acquitted themselves well? Is it easier to learn from other people’s mistakes?

Fergus Speight, general counsel, Royal London Group: Even if a business has had the best year ever, not everything in your strategy goes right. When it goes right you learn from that, and if it goes wrong you do too. I’ve been in many a disastrous situation and I’ve learned a lot, but you also learn resilience.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: Saying ‘wait and see’ is advice in itself. It’s not that it isn’t advice.

Sarah Linstead, general counsel London and head of corporate finance, Société Générale: Yes. It’s about having the conviction to say that as well.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: There’s a bias towards action. Some people want actions and decisions but saying ‘wait and see and let it play out’ can be the best advice possible. I can identify situations in the past 12 months where, had we made knee-jerk decisions on the fact at the time, we would absolutely have made the wrong decision for the business. By letting situations play out for an additional 24 hours when the actual facts become apparent meant we had cooler heads and made better strategic decisions.

Rhian Deakin, general counsel, Foster & Partners: It’s context-specific. At certain times if there’s a false deadline – we can say ‘well, let’s establish the real deadline’. In that context I feel comfortable saying ‘let’s reflect on this’ – it’s a ­legitimate thing to say. I feel my role is to facilitate and inform or give understanding they might not have, and to be a rational, impartial voice.

Sarah Linstead, general counsel London and head of corporate finance and head of corporate finance, Société Générale: Yes, calming the situation down. Some people in the room will have other agendas, inevitably the bottom line, and it’s our role to be a voice of calm.

Matt Wilson, legal director, Uber: The legal team, because we’re into every bit of the business, has much more of a holistic view of the business. It’s really advantageous.

Steve Roberts, chief counsel procurement and wholesale, BT: I was going to make a similar point. With change programmes the legal team has more linkages across the business than, say, an individual in the sales function, so in terms of your pure network you can have more influence than others and make change happen.

Sarah Linstead, general counsel London and head of corporate finance and head of corporate finance, Société Générale: There’s lots of analogies with other parts of the business you can make. I’m a new GC and I come from a corporate finance background, which serves a particular part of the business. Now I’m able to bring other analogous experiences to that overarching role – it allows you to bring in a wider perspective.

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