General counsel must have sharply honed political skills if they are to become trusted advisers, reports RPC's ED FitzGerald.
Commercial skills balanced with political nous are a 'must have' for any general counsel looking to influence a business sergey nivern
It all comes back to earning trust. That was the underlying theme that ran through a fascinating roundtable discussion this week on the changing role of General Counsel and how they can get more influence at the boardroom table.
So, how to earn that trust? Well, firstly, it's about demonstrating value. How can you, as an in-house-lawyer, show the board that what you offer makes a material difference to the commercial success of their business? To do this, it's no longer good enough to be just a lawyer. In fact, as one GC put it, "I'm learning to be less of a lawyer and more of a business person."
At a fundamental level this comes down to having a deep understanding of the business you work for and the different commercial drivers that impact on each area of that business – "If I didn't engage with the commercial side of the business I'd quickly be rendered irrelevant", said another delegate. With commerciality nailed, it's then about being a good communicator, and using those skills to build relationships internally. It's all very well being a great lawyer, and fantastically astute commercially, but if you don't have the personal skills to sell yourself in that way to your colleagues then the ladder to the boardroom table will be a few rungs short and the climb to the top that much more difficult.
But it's not simply about building relationships – it's about building the right relationships, in the right way. Put simply – politics. Those GCs who succeed in securing a chair at the top table, or who have achieved significant levels of influence in their organisations, are invariably excellent politicians who understand the intricate dynamics at play between the senior people they work with, and know who to get close to, when, and how.
Like any relationship, though, you have to invest time and have patience. "The first rule of politics is 'be there'," commented one learned lawyer, with another agreeing that it's all about "building up political goodwill over time to gain influence."
So, it seems to get to the top of an organisation as an in-house lawyer there are some key steps to take. Be a great lawyer; understand the business, intimately; build your armoury of business skills; communicate, clearly and consistently; and make sure you're involved in key decision-making, early. Only then can you build trust; and only then will you gain the influence necessary to be a strategic business advisor to your organisation.
All pretty straightforward, really…
The roundtable came of the back of research conducted by Global Legal Post in association with City law firm RPC. You can follow RPC on twitter @RPCLaw, or visit our website.
Ed FitzGerald is Head of Marketing and Communications at RPC