How can longer-serving GCs leave their legacy for the next generation rising through the ranks? Our panel of in-house experts discuss their strategies.

What sort of legacy should in-house counsel be aiming to achieve?

Alistair Ritchie: If you’ve been able to assist the business to deliver its strategic growth, to have a department that is first choice and respected for the advice it can give to the business, and have a team with the flexibility to deal with the needs of the business – balancing risk and commercial opportunity and getting it right, you can be pleased with that. Legacy is when people feel comfortable that the business has been developed and protected from a legal perspective.

Christopher Digby-Bell: One of the joys about being an in-house lawyer is that you are the business and if I’ve left a legacy at all, not only have I learnt how to fit legal services into the business but the reverse is the same as well – all the directors on board have a very good understanding of the legal issues. I hope I’ve been a lawyer who can say yes all the time, but has the confidence to say no. I ask directors – what’s the answer you’d like? My job is to work back to the beginning and en route make sure they stay on the right side of risk and right side of the law.

Kay Majid: I remember very vividly when I attended the first UK board meeting and someone said to me, ‘Are you here to do the contracts?’ – which was quite depressing! I said I hoped I’d get to the point where you don’t want to start the meeting without me here. The aim is that you become an integral part of the team and that people want you there as part of the decision-making.

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Keith Ruddock: I was pulled up when I first went in-house that I still used to talk about the business as clients. One of my finance colleagues said to me, ‘As long as you’re talking about clients you’re putting a distance there.’ He was right. As lawyers we struggle with that. We know how much we have to offer but the other functions are better at actually positioning themselves as integrated within the business. People don’t question why the HR person is at the table, or a finance person.

Ed Smith: What should your legacy be? That your team is better, brighter and more trained than the one you inherited. Recruitment and retention of the best people in your team is by far and away the single most important thing you have to do – everything else follows. The reputation of the team, the opportunity to get ingrained at the centre of the business, only arises if you’ve got very high-quality people. All lawyers who go and work for a company forever describe themselves as in-house lawyers. We’ve created this apartheid insofar as we’re boxed in – it’s as if the maximum we have to do is to provide a better, quicker, cheaper service, and when we win in that equation we pat ourselves on the back – but it’s so restrictive. I’ve got a little side bet with the CEO to say that I’ll get six lawyers out into the business, and the test whether or not it’s a success would be if people would meet them for a period of 30 minutes and they didn’t realise they were lawyers. I’ve got two away already!

Ian Haslegrave: I think it’s quite good to overhire – you’re looking not for what they are now but where you can be. Success could be that you almost make yourself redundant because your team is so strong. It sounds like an insecure place to be but it’s because you’ve recruited the right people. You know it’s a success when you’re invited to meetings not because you’re a lawyer but because they want you to be there – they don’t say it’s a legal thing, they just want you there to help.

Ed Smith: Some of the most impressive people in my business, people who are real stars, super clever, it never occurs to ask them what they did before – it turns out they’re accountants, engineers or marketing or whatever, but lawyers insist on letting you know they’re lawyers within two minutes of meeting them.

How should a GC be developing his or her team?

Paul Coulson: Is there a perception of lawyers that they’re stuck to the legal department? I’m currently seconded into HR on the employee relations team. Good lawyers get a sense that the law is one thing but applying it to practice is another.

Bridget Green: Working in a very small team you have to get involved in all sorts of levels very quickly – the challenge is the sharing of knowledge and relationships so senior people will consider you where necessary. It’s a two-way game and the GC has to be able to let go. The companies I’ve been with approach it very differently but it’s a lot to do with personalities.

Keith Ruddock: If you have a legal department of any size, the default position should be your successor should be internal. Having said that, it’s healthy and appropriate to test the market externally. If your internal candidate beats the external candidate – that should be what you’re aiming for and that’s success.

Ian Haslegrave: I like the point that you have to stretch some of your high potentials – that sometimes puts them into scary scenarios but I have been personally surprised when you let them go and give them access to senior people. You have to trust them. They’re scared to death the first time but they get used to it, and their profile goes up, the profile of the department goes up – you have to give them a chance.

Peter Farrell: Don’t be scared of appointing bright intelligent people who want your job – that is how you get a high performing team. People feed off those people who are hardworking, bright and intelligent, and the earlier they can do your job it takes the pressure off you and you can move up a level into a bigger picture scenario where you’re thinking about the business strategically. You can be much more useful to the senior management because you’ve got some great people below you who are working hard and you can trust them to develop.

Sometimes with lawyers there’s a tendency to say – that person has to be a corporate lawyer, that person has to be a litigator. But actually when you’re in-house you want someone commercially bright, intuitive, who understands the politics, understands the deal between different departments and people in stressful situations. You should be thinking about putting people into different functions across the business.

Ed Smith: It is possible in a reasonably big in-house team to have a decent career in a specialism, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But
if you aspire to be a GC and do something in business it’s certainly not impossible to get there on that basis, but you’re lessening your chances. It’s very rarely the case that the best lawyer in-house is the GC. That’s not how you make it – being lucky is. But having the right touch with senior management, being a good recruiter, understanding a little bit about everything in the legal team and not by becoming intensively expert in one area.

How can you stop the lawyers on your team from limiting themselves?

Kay Majid: A lot of it comes down to your private practice training where you work in silos, and that makes people quite regimented about their practice. When I see them coming in-house it makes them very nervous about making judgement calls outside their area. We coach them and they say, ‘Well this is quite fun, it’s interesting,’ and they become a much more well-rounded lawyer.

Peter Farrell: It’s also down to how we’re taught. Lawyers learn about case law and every time they learn something it’s about what went wrong. So lawyers get brought up in a learning system where they get paralysed by fear in case something goes wrong and they go into a commercial environment and they go, ‘well, frankly, yes, that is a risk, but it’s not going to happen’.

Ian Haslegrave: You see the transition from private practice to in-house, where they try to give a lot of options to the business guys and when they get good at it by just giving one recommendation and own a business decision. When you’re an external lawyer you say, ‘These are the risks,’ when you’re an in-house lawyer you make the choice.

Paul Coulson: Sometimes I’ve gone to the business with the recommendations, and they say, what are the options? They were so used to lawyers being lawyers they hadn’t seen a commercial and pragmatic lawyer before!

Keith Ruddock: We beat ourselves up a lot about our apparent lack of numeracy. If that’s a limiting factor, then get over it and do something about it. There are lots of ways to get comfortable with numbers. As lawyers you often have the thread and knowledge and common experience through negotiation of risks, crises, and you bring a different dimension to the discussion. In a very technical organisation you’re equipped to ask the obvious question that other people in the room may not have considered. You should feel empowered and you shouldn’t be shy of speaking up. I find when you do that people are looking for that slightly discordant challenge.

Peter Farrell: A lot of lawyers sitting in a room with finance people are not confident enough to point something out. I went on a senior management course at London Business School and I was the only lawyer on it. There were a lot of finance directors and they set us a problem involving numbers and all these senior finance directors were getting it wrong. I thought – great, they’re not that clever, you really can raise that ‘stupid’ point because they’re fallible, so you don’t have to be scared.

Ed Smith: Once we were asked to input risks in numbers and the struggle I had getting litigators to do this! [The people making the decision] needed a slide pack with percentages and worst case scenarios. The only way I could break down the resistance of lawyers to doing it was to show them how the accountants do their job every day – they’ll make some assumptions and guesses and it looks to the untrained eye like science and a lot of lawyers think it is.

But if you dig out an old business plan from three years ago, it bears no relation to what actually happened. Once you know that as a lawyer, it’s very powerful.

What can general counsel do to aid leadership development?

Christopher Digby-Bell: My generation of lawyers weren’t given any training on anything, but working as a client with lawyers in partnership, the difference between a good lawyer and an excellent lawyer is one who has soft skills. I used to think it was simply inherent and I’ve changed my mind – I think you can train people.

Keith Ruddock: In a law firm it’s more difficult to consciously move people around because your value is in being a specialist, whereas in a company you can take that opportunity. Shell did that as a matter of course. To be at the most senior level at the legal function in Shell you had to have a range of different experiences – that may have changed after I left but I thought that was a very enlightened approach.

Crisis and adversity: how can your team rise to the challenge?

Kay Majid: I can talk about that given recent experiences. We’ve had a difficult time and the prominence of the legal team has absolutely risen during this. I spoke at the start about struggling to explain the purpose of my role, or the purpose of the team, but I don’t have to explain any more. It’s incredibly energising within the legal team for people to realise how important their role is in a time of adversity. So we’ve always been countercyclical to the rest of the business and actually we’re just going though a serious restructuring and redundancy programme – we’re the only function not to be affected and are actually growing.

Ed Smith: There’s an inverse morale index. If tough things are happening lawyers are almost whistling on their way to work because they’ve got crises to deal with.

Ian Haslegrave: I think we do bring something to a crisis because we’re calm. Sometimes if we have a compliance issue you find people running around, very excitable, and you bring calmness to the business – and if you do that well it enhances your reputation and show your worth.

Kay Majid: And unfortunately when crisis crystallises, people understand finally we have a compliance programme.

Keith Ruddock: You don’t want to wish a crisis on your company, but you don’t want to waste your crisis either. It’s a bit like children playing football – everyone wants to follow the ball but in a crisis you need structure, you need to spread out, and very often the lawyer is the person who can bring perspective.

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The Lawyer and BLP run regular GC2B roundtable events discussing the current issues affecting in-house lawyers. To join the debate, attend an event or for more information, contact emma.bower@centaurmedia.com