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Lawyers who go beyond just law could create a post-pandemic paradigm

Lawyers who go beyond just law could create a post-pandemic paradigm

Source: Business Times
Article Date: 29 Dec 2020
Author: Jeffrey Tan

Lawyers who spend more time performing strategic work and providing business guidance tend to be more effective than those who only focus their efforts on legal issues.

The Covid-19 pandemic has inundated lawyers in corporations with a multitude of challenges. In the past year, in-house lawyers, also known as General Counsels (GCs) have been providing valuable guidance to their organisations: addressing various issues from employee and customer health and safety, to ensuring business operations' continuity through 'lock-downs', 'circuit breakers' and re-opening measures - all within a constantly evolving landscape.

In a recent Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance entitled 'The Rise of the General Counsel', John Gilmore, managing partner at Barker Gilmore, a top legal search consultant firm with Fortune 500 clients like Microsoft and Pfizer, made the following observation: "Trained for crisis management, GCs are relied on now more than ever by CEOs and boards for their strategic insights, finely tuned leadership skills and ability to influence others."

Today's successful GC is comfortable advising on issues relating to legal, compliance and business matters, while possessing the gravitas, emotional intelligence and leadership abilities necessary to influence others.

These skills create trusted relationships at all levels, both inside and outside of the corporation.

GCs who spend a higher percentage of their time performing strategic work and providing business guidance are assessed as being more effective than those who only focus their efforts on legal issues.

According to Gartner Inc, GCs who embrace an 'executive' role that goes beyond just providing legal advice enjoy several positive outcomes: Besides achieving personal fulfilment of being more involved in the business, they also develop skills which give them greater influence with peer executives in the corporation, thereby contributing beyond just the legal realm to an organisation's corporate success.

The pandemic, with its novel issues and high degree of uncertainty, has allowed GCs, who have the boldness to embrace challenges, to go beyond legal areas.

Abbott Martin, head of research in Gartner's Legal and Compliance Practice sums it up well: "GCs are essential to corporate strategy and must focus their time accordingly. The pandemic - with the interdependence of governmental action and corporate response - has only heightened the importance of the GC."

In willingly assuming greater non-legal executive responsibilities, GCs have also opened up new opportunities to have a stronger ability to influence the chief executive officer, and thereby provide a significant impact on a corporation's strategic decision making.

In an August 2020 survey covering 97 GCs of leading US multinationals, Gartner concluded that only 8 per cent of GCs performed a truly 'executive' role, with the majority (59 per cent) performing just tactical legal work and offering legal guidance rather than involving themselves in top-level strategy.

Of this 8 per cent of GCs with executive responsibilities, they had an 83 per cent ability to influence their respective CEOs, compared to only 43 per cent of their 'legal-only' GC brethren in their ability to influence the CEO.

The almost two-times impact in the ability of an 'executive' GC to influence a corporation's CEO, and therefore the corporation's direction of travel, is significant and should not be overlooked - by GCs and CEOs alike.

A NEW PARADIGM

The default position taken by many GCs is often to focus solely on legal aspects of matters, proffering no views on strategy and business; thereby failing to meaningfully incorporate extra-legal business considerations like the impact of the law on a corporation's strategic initiatives or the business bottom line.

The challenge is two-fold: First, many GCs are often uncomfortable (or unwilling) to venture out of the relative security of the legal sphere into areas of strategy, business and things that are non-legal.

Secondly, there is the lens through which GCs are usually viewed by parties like CEOs, business teams and boards, who limit the involvement of their GC to the singular role as a chief lawyer and nothing else.

As a matter of course, enlightened management and boards seek the views of their chief financial officers, as an 'all hands on deck' approach is required to address the challenges of the pandemic. There is no reason why the views and insights of GCs should be excluded.

To escape from the current status quo, there is a need for a 'push and pull' game plan: GCs need to purposefully 'push' themselves out of their legal comfort zone to offer views on strategy and business issues; even as management and boards actively 'pull' their GCs into the business discussions on non-legal issues.

GCs who have the courage and boldness to pivot their time and energies towards more strategic work will naturally be led into becoming more closely involved in executive decision-making and execution - areas where GCs can add great value to the organisation.

Making this shift requires GCs to have a change in mindset as well as careful consideration of their time and resource allocation. GCs continue to have the responsibility for a corporation's legal matters, and given that a GC will have the same 24 hours in a day, there is a need to prioritise how their time is spent, with whom and the type of work they will be involved in.

GCs will always need to be involved in things like contract negotiations, M&A, regulatory and compliance work. But this need not all be done by the GC alone.

Training up and empowering members of the legal team, adopting technology are all ways to free up time for the GC to be involved in strategic elements of that work.

There is no easy answer but there is certainly a unique opportunity that the Covid-19 pandemic has created for the involvement of the GC in business matters.

To progress, GCs will need to transition from a risk management 'gate-keeper' mindset that accompanies a usual provider of legal services, to becoming a business leader who provides strategic and practical insights that are valued and pivotal in corporate decision-making.

Even as businesses re-imagine the many changes that need to be made in a post pandemic world, GCs, too, must embrace new business and strategic roles - to enhance their value and stay relevant, post-Covid-19.

The writer is the group general counsel and chief sustainability officer of Jardine Cycle & Carriage. He also serves on the board of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.

Source: Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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