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Good counsel. Work out how to make your general counsel happy – and keep her that way.

The GC role is expanding. Keeping them happy is all about understanding their world.

Claire Carless

Claire Carless, Siemens

She hires your firm, but she could just as easily move on to someone else. And in the interim – while she is focused on her main job of fundamentally transforming how in-house legal teams support the business – she will decide how much she wants to pay you. Want to be a success? Work out how to make your general counsel happy – and keep her that way.

Of course, keeping a client happy starts with understanding their world. And Claire Carless, general counsel at Siemens, says that the key is to recognise that the general counsel role is undergoing huge change. “The change is driven by greater regulation, business demand for increased speed to market, a constant drive for efficiency and continuous improvement, and the need for more understanding of the business to support better decision making,” she says. “But it is right that we should be doing these things and constantly adapting the general counsel role and the role of the legal function to move with the external market and our own organisations.”

Funke Abimbola

Funke Abimbola, Roche

At Siemens, this means that lawyers are very close to the businesses they support, often sitting on management teams and encouraged to give a view rather than sit on the fence. “This is really valued by the organisation and underpins the need to really understand the business model and our products and projects.”

Another major shift is the move away from relying purely on strong technical ability, as Funke Abimbola, managing counsel at pharmaceutical company Roche, points out. “General counsel are developing additional competencies such as strategic agility, commercial awareness and pragmatism,” she says.

“I am constantly challenged to find new ways for both me and my team to develop and demonstrate these skills. And we have increased the value we add by becoming more visible – through our communication, networking and successful business partnering – and that has meant that we are involved in projects much earlier and are then able to shape the outcome from the outset.

“As a legal team, we are uniquely placed with a helicopter view of the company and have been able to capitalise on this, enhancing the quality of the advice that we provide.”

Denise Nurse

Denise Nurse, Halebury

The real value general counsel bring to companies is not, as many believe, primarily about troubleshooting, says Denise Nurse, chief executive officer and co-founder of Halebury. “Their real value is helping the business shape strategies in the first place. That means they have to be brought in early, and that can only happen if they have the confidence of the business.”

Nurse points out that a general counsel’s legal knowledge is a given, and that the role is now all about strategy, leadership and communication. “They are in a privileged position and work across the departments. If they are good at their job, they listen and see what goes on in the business, so that they can give good guidance and counsel and are valued by the business. The reality is that general counsel now have to do more for less – they have to be smarter, and delivery is at the top if the agenda.”

But what does all this mean when it comes to the general counsel’s relationship with external law firms? “Ideally, your relationship with any external supplier should be a partnership, since both have common objectives,” says Nurse. “It is important that the firm understands the business objectives and is aligned with them.

“Good communication is vital, but perhaps the biggest issue is transparency, particularly in terms of the fee structure. Hourly rate, fixed fees, volume deals – whatever method you use, there should be no surprises. You need to have regular conversations about it and have a clear idea of what your legal spend is and why.”

As Abimbola puts it, the external law firm should be “an extension of my own in-house legal team” with a keen awareness of the internal pressures and dynamics that it has to contend with. But, she adds, this requires clear two-way communication, with general counsel themselves playing a pivotal role in relaying information to law firms.

Relationship management

While some firms are good at understanding what in-house teams want and delivering it with appropriate extras, others fall short. Those missing the mark, says Carless, operate “as if they are entitled to get work from us, and are extremely inefficient and arrogant in both the service they provide and the way they try and charge for it. There is a long way to make law firms really customer-centric organisations.”

Joanna Day

Joanna Day, Santander

For Joanna Day, director of legal services for Santander Corporate Banking, external firms have to be willing to invest in a meaningful relationship with the business that instructs them. “We are always happy to provide knowledge of our business,” she says, “but in return we want sound, pragmatic advice and no sitting on the fence.”

An essential part of that, states Day, is relationship management. “We don’t want to pay for additional partners to attend meetings on projects simply because they are the relationship manager and we pay for them. Relationship management is an art and the relationship manager needs to know all that is happening within his firm for that particular client – not just within their speciality – and be co-ordinated with client contact. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing many different partners on relationship management from the same firm at different times.”

And if a traditional set-up doesn’t deliver? The real threat may well come from firms able to offer a completely different level of flexibility. “In-sourcing companies – such as Axiom, Lawyers on Demand and Eversheds Agile – have an increasing role to play in the market,” says Carless. “With increased pressure on internal resources (both people and budgets), having access to flexible resources to meet peaks in demand will, I believe, increasingly become the norm.”

On board

Is the next logical step a seat on the board? General counsel themselves do not see it as essential, and much hangs on the organisation concerned. “If a general counsel is regarded as a trusted adviser, they will be included in discussions around business strategy and they do not need a place on the board in order to have a profile,” says Day. “If an adviser truly gives sound, pragmatic advice then the profile will follow.

“Women, in particular, bring a different voice and experience,” she says, “and have a different and more practical way of looking at things and solving problems. There is definitely something to the view that women are good at multi-tasking, and in the fast-pace business environment we currently work in, that is of huge value,” she adds.

Carless agrees. “General counsel should always attend executive and board meetings, whether as company secretary, director or general counsel. Whether they should also be a director is less relevant in my view,” she says.

“In a formal sense, being a director gives a clear remit and responsibility to engage on all topics, but it may also create a limitation on the lawyer’s ability to act as an adviser. It may also bring with it a responsibility some may not want. Having said that, I think that general counsel and other senior lawyers should take on more non-executive roles – they generally have a great skill set and a lot to add to a board.”

Traditionally, general counsel and in-house lawyering has been seen as a good option for women – and the culture of in-house law continues to have a much better record on diversity than law as a whole. So how important is diversity to general counsel?

Carless is clear: “If organisations don’t value and support their female employees, they are closing off what is already a limited talent pool by 50 per cent, and not getting the benefit of richer discussion and stronger decision-making,” she says. “It’s great that there is now much more conversation and focus on diversity and inclusion, but we need to translate that into real change. Diversity is a business imperative.”