For general counsel to fly high in organizations, they have to embrace the commercial realities as well as do the day job, says Julia Chain
Staring out of a window at 37,000 feet contemplating the unchanging Texan landscape below and the very bumpy flight caused by unseen and unexpected air pockets, I am finally getting an idea for what I might write on this blog, which starts today and which I hope will allow me to comment on the in-house legal community, engaging you in a worthwhile debate.
Looking down from a great height, the view is unexciting and unchanging, but this is an illusion. Speaking to Texans about the differentials in culture, innovation, living standards and lifestyles within this huge state, I realize that you can see change happening if you know where to look. At the same time the air pockets – unexpected and disturbing – are creating turbulence in what looks like a calm and cloudless sky.
The role of the GC has changed forever
Forgive the flights of fancy or overdone metaphors, but I see a parallel here. The role of the in-house lawyer has just changed forever and I am not sure anyone has noticed, other than a few little bumps caused by an airing in the press. Everything might feel the same but it is not.
A few weeks ago the GC of a major bank stepped down as a result of a ‘clean sweep’ in the executive management team (the ‘C Suite’ as my Texan colleagues would have it). What was interesting was that GC and the CFO stepped down together wanting to do ‘what was best for the bank’, as was reported in the press . What was groundbreaking and changed the game forever was that the GC was considered accountable, together with the C Suite, for management issues.
The shift to executive manager
Fair or unfair, it doesn’t actually matter - what matters is that the shift from lawyer to executive manager, which we have seen now in numerous corporations (just look at Glaxo Smith Kline, Shell, BP, RBS – the list is growing all the time) has finally been recognized and the role of the GC, and therefore the in-house team, can never be the same again.
I am sorry that a decent bloke and good lawyer had to resign, although I am sure he won’t be short of opportunities if he wants them, but I am excited that the debate is now wide open – what is the new role of the GC? What new skills will in-house lawyers have to utilize to meet the challenges of the future, and how will they acquire them, and will technology really mean the end of lawyers, as the inestimable Richard Susskind would have us believe? These are fundamental questions for our profession and over the coming weeks I hope to muse on them and maybe even find a few answers. I would love to hear your views, so please write in.
Commercial realities are a given
I visited a senior European GC recently and he said to me “cost and headcount are not my priorities - my priority is giving excellent legal advice”. I’m glad his CEO wasn’t in the room – can you imagine any C Suite executive saying that cost doesn’t matter if you do a good job. Truth is, giving best-in-class legal advice while keeping cost and headcount under control IS doing a good job and any in-house lawyer who doesn’t embrace the commercial realities that this entails is probably in the wrong job – or came from a law firm!
There are some real issues to be thought through and ignoring them is a risky strategy. Change is happening fast and I want to be in there on the ground making the rules, not watching from 37,000 feet and discovering, when I land, that it’s a different world. I imagine you do too.