The changing role of the country’s top GCs

What do you get when you put some of the UK’s finest in-house lawyers into one room? No, not a raging hangover (for those of you suffering from last night’s The Lawyer Awards). The Lawyer found the answer during its recent roundtable discussion with those on the shortlist of last night’s In-house Lawyer of the Year award, sponsored by Thomson Reuters.

Lucy Burton

The conclusion of the debate? In-house lawyers are no longer the forgotten back office box-tickers they once were – these lot are now masters of the boardroom.

The consensus at the roundtable was that sending work to external firms is an unnecessary drain on resources. Keeping legal work in-house helps keep costs to a minimum, but also, one lawyer commented, has the bonus of allowing teams get stuck into the meatiest deals. 

“I feel sorry for people who have to watch the best work go out of the building,” one lawyer said. 

Another agreed: “I’m against outsourcing good quality work. So we do the majority of our work in-house and if there is a resource issue we try to get a secondee in or outsource the smaller bits of work.”

So there you have it. Now here’s a cheers to Yum! legal chief Sarah Nelson Smith, crowned 2014’s In-house Lawyer of the Year.

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In-House Lawyer of the Year Roundtable, in association with Thomson Reuters

In-House Lawyer of the Year Roundtable:

Thomas Brown, Head of Legal UK and Ireland – PayPal UK             

Jeremy Cross, Head of Legal and Company Secretary – Anesco                                      

Michael Ellis, Group General Counsel Abercrombie & Kent

Catrin Griffiths, Editor – The Lawyer

Sarah Nelson Smith, Legal Director – Kentucky Fried Chicken & Pizza Hut UK & Ireland                     

Ijeoma Okoli, Director – Lloyds Banking Group

Nicola Shand, Company Secretary & Solicitor -Scotia Gas Networks             

Ben Watts, Head of Law – Litigation and Social Welfare Kent Legal Services

Representatives from the finalists of The Lawyer In-House Lawyer of the Year, discuss the changing nature of their roles. Martin English, Sales Director for Serengeti, a Thomson Reuters Legal Solution, reports on the discussion.

My resounding take-away from the roundtable was just how much the role of today’s general counsel is evolving.  In addition to being legal guardians of the business, general counsel are moving their teams into the spotlight, taking positions on the board and playing a greater role in moulding and growing their respective businesses.

As companies expand and adapt, new areas of work are created for the GC. This can mean more contentious or renewable work, in addition to ensuring that the business grows safely and that commercial deals are viable and adhere to regulation. One nominee noted that their role was akin to “a pick and mix, where you have to eat all the sweets, even the ones you don’t like”. The mix of work may vary from company to company, but the consensus was that for most, no two days are the same.  

With new kinds of work come new challenges. Those coming through the ranks are young and ambitious, but balancing the need to develop individuals at the speed they would like, in the face of increased workloads can prove difficult. The mixed blessing of social media is also a concern, and not just for customer facing businesses.Iindustries such as the energy sector also need to be on their guard for pitfalls. For this group, the GC has a part to play in managing social media, with PR agencies reporting into the legal function in some cases.

As influencing and contributing to strategic commercial decisions becomes a greater part of the GC’s role, commercial acumen is no longer a nice to have, but a core requirement for the successful GC. Key concerns for our group of nomineeswere ensuring that the in-house team is valued by the business, delivering more work internally and growing with the business,  while protecting the business through that growth.

By becoming part of the strategic process from the beginning, sitting in product development meetings, helping to navigate risks and explain regulatory constraints to the business, the old perception of the GC as an obstacle to progress is being reversed as they reframe their roles as fixers and enablers. 

This represents a significant change in culture, both in terms of a having a stronger commercial role to play and in terms of being a manager, required to mould the legal team to best support business needs. For many around the table this meant that having the courage of their convictions and being prepared to push back have become key skills to develop.

Many in the group cited strong working relationships with their CFO and CEOs as helping to fuel the culture change.  

Despite representing very different organisations, all embraced the diversity and increasingly broad range of challenges their roles now present them with. It was a pleasure to spend time with these talented, commercial thinkers, who expressed huge passion not only for protecting, but actively growing their businesses.