As the legal industry digitizes, the role of the General Counsel grows ever more complex. In a recent series of roundtable discussions co-sponsored by Corporate Counsel Australia and MinterEllison on the challenges faced by modern GC’s, many attendees expressed concern over how difficult it can be to justify the role of the GC in concrete terms.
This was Dazychain’s second year attending the ILANZ annual conference, and personally my first time attending.
I was impressed and inspired by the close knit community of the New Zealand In-house counsel, and the wonderful energy in the air of people excited to connect, learn and improve their current processes. The authentic and invaluable knowledge sharing that was taking place demonstrated the creative and hard-working attitude so often attributed to New Zealanders.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Te Tiro Iho e Te Manu” - a Bird’s eye view. In a number of seminars, wonderful discussions were taking place about the legal team’s function within the business and how they can provide data to their executive teams.
It is apparent that the tide is turning in the legal industry, and running the legal department like other business departments is a must. The General Counsel must know how much the organisation is spending on legal advice, who is instructing external law firms, and ensure an organised knowledge management system is in place.
A key takeaway from the conference as a whole was - build a strong legal function that knows what they are working, and can demonstrate their value to the executive team. The General Counsel needs to be a strong manager as well as provide sound legal advice. Having meaningful data available will help the GC manage their team efficiently, resource their team effectively, and be the reliable strategic advisor the business needs. At any point, the legal team should be able to report on what they are working on, the high risks matters that require attention, and manage the advice given in a way that can be referenced in the future.
Since 2015, I have attended each GC Summit held annually in Sydney. During that time, I have been amazed to observe the speed at which the industry has changed.
My impression is that the GC focus has become increasingly more commercial, and this advisory role is a highly valued key to the success and risk mitigation for many organisations. GCs are also extending their activities beyond the strictly legal, while using more technology to tackle enormous workloads.
Following are some thoughts on those changes and some comments on the presentations made at the 2019 GC Summit.
As the complexities of compliance and regulation increase, so does the need for and the importance of in-house counsel. Lisa Mather from Paypal and Alison Telfer from BlackRock illustrated the complexities of working across hundreds of different jurisdictions and maintaining licences in many countries. One speaker said that it is just plain good practice to employ at least one in-house lawyer in each major offshore branch.
Globalisation is increasing and cross border trade is increasing, and this means companies trading internationally need more lawyers representing their interests in different parts of the globe. Nina Ta from Uber spoke about what it’s like to manage 87,000 drivers globally, and Kirk Simmons from Canva described how his team of 4 supports the company in 100 countries.
Cybercrime and information security is recognised as a huge risk for all businesses and governments. Speakers discussed recent cases concerning Marriott, Austal and a job application data breach which affected Coles and many other leading Australian and international corporations. In-house lawyers now have key executive roles in both safeguarding against and dealing with cybercrime. David Brewster from Coles described his company’s response to a breach and the role he played together with company leaders in managing the response. Peter Horton from Ausgrid described the role of lawyers in helping keep such a massively regulated asset as the electricity grid safe.
Emmanuel Lulin from L’Oreal led a fascinating Socratic dialogue about ethics. His proposition was a novel one, for me anyway. He said that the speed of scientific innovation and technical innovation is much faster than the speed of law making. The consequence is that there is a void ion the law, and that void can only be filled with ethics. This means that ethics are becoming much more important, as we can’t just rely on the law to prescribe proper conduct. Lulin says that making decisions involves two simple questions: ‘Do I have the right to do it?’, which is the legal aspect, and ‘Is it the right thing to do?’, which is the ethical aspect.
Emmanuel Lulin’s other key proposition is that in the 21st Century if an organisation loses the trust of its stakeholders it will be punished, or even disappear altogether, such as Enron, WorldCom and Lehmann Brothers. He says that lawyers’ traditional roles are expanding to include an ethical leadership role in decision making.
Another change over recent years is the place of the private firms. In my perception, private firms continue to be indispensable and much respected advisers to their in-house colleagues. However, the rosy glasses through which they used to be viewed have well and truly been replaced. The piercing, commercial gaze of the in-house lawyer now falls happily upon the alternative legal service providers. Many organisations have productive relationships with more than one such provider. While they generally seem to respect the best skills of the firm lawyers, they generally do not seem to respect their skills in bill presentation. They are also quite happy these days to be strict about the economic results they require using fixed price arrangements, for example.
It is really pleasing for a lawyer turned entrepreneur like me to see that lawyers are doing so well outside the realm of black letter law. Lawyers are using their considerable skills, and the experience they gain across all divisions of their organisations, to solve much more than traditional legal problems.
My final perception from discussions at the GC Summit is that technology is not the bogeyman for lawyers that it was feared to be a year or two ago. Technology is taking its rightful place, as an enabler, not as a robber of jobs. I will write a separate note about that shortly.