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General Counsel: Go from Buried to the Board Room

Corporate counsel can successfully balance routine work while delivering strategic guidance

Transitioning from junior in-house counsel to the coveted General Counsel (GC) role is a dream for many, but navigating the increased responsibilities, growing uncertainties, and complex challenges can have the new GC feeling buried instead of suited for the role.

Climbing out from under the growing pile of routine work is crucial to providing the strategic guidance the business demands. Where does GC start to deliver the most value, develop their team, manage spend, stay current on all matters, and demonstrate effective leadership? Not surprisingly, successful GC rely on two critical elements: technology and relationships. 

In the article, Are you a new General Counsel? Top ten ways to succeed in your new role, knowing and assessing your internal and external stakeholders as well as your existing systems and infrastructure are key opportunities to hit the ground running. “The first months in any new role have a tremendous effect on how an employee is perceived and can determine that employee’s success,” the article states.

There’s never been a better time to assume the role of GC. As the 2020 pandemic revealed, in-house legal teams can deliver value and maintain service continuity through tech-enabled efficiencies, communication tools, and tracking mechanisms for risk management, compliance, and regulatory developments. 

Pandemic-driven opportunities

The pandemic has added to the challenges facing corporate legal departments, but it’s also created opportunities for in-house counsel to step into a more strategic role going forward, according to Thomson Reuters’ 2021 State of Corporate Law Departments study. “The after-effects of 2020 will likely contain as many positives as negatives,” says the study’s executive summary, “and, if department leaders are smart, it should act as a catalyst for accelerating the change agenda in 2021 and beyond.”

Here are the top takeaways from the study, which is based on more than 2,000 telephone interviews with senior in-house counsel, a survey of 223 in-house legal operations teams, and Legal Tracker benchmarking data reflecting more than $90 billion in legal spending by more than 1,450 law departments.

  • Workload has grown and budgets have shrunk. As a result of the pandemic crisis, nearly 60% of law departments reported a surge in work demands, compared with 7% that reported a decrease. Meanwhile, nearly 30% had to reduce spending and only 6% saw their budgets increase. “Further, they supported their organizations in reinventing business operations to varying degrees and breaking through barriers that would have previously been considered insurmountable,” the report notes. “This dynamic changed the composition of work from business as usual to crisis management.” Doing more with less, indeed.
  • The pandemic created or expanded four legal workstreams. Corporate law departments focused more intently on mitigating risks and preventing disputes emerging from the pandemic, complying with dynamic COVID-19 requirements, enabling remote work, and managing fast-changing, high-risk corporate operational activity such as supply chain resilience.
  • No reprieve to the budget squeeze. Legal department budgets will continue to strain as business-as-usual work returns to pre-pandemic levels and the volatile demands of the COVID-19 environment persist.
  • Law departments vary in their ability to adapt and thrive amid uncertainty. “Many traditional law departments lost time while their more modern counterparts were able to adapt to changing conditions much more quickly,” the study found. “Forward-thinking law departments will be using this time to invest in the technology, processes, and smart resourcing required to optimize value and effectiveness from their current budgets.”

The framework for strategic leadership

The State of the Corporate Legal Department study identified 10 steps successful legal departments took during the pandemic that demonstrated innovation, adaptability, and agility that will enable them to provide high-value strategic leadership going forward:

  1. Use technology that supports effective and efficient remote working.
  2. Establish remote work practices to give teams structured operating processes and regular engagement.
  3. Connect regularly with internal business leaders to ensure they have access to the legal guidance they need.
  4. Foster a creative, non-hierarchical culture in which all team members can contribute to address challenges.
  5. Integrate seamlessly with external counsel.
  6. Access law firm resources to identify, understand, and prepare for emerging legal issues.
  7. Learn from external law firms’ experience with their other clients.
  8. Track regulatory developments across all jurisdictions and ensure compliance.
  9. Create and maintain a register that ranks potential legal risks.
  10. Maintain a robust, ongoing risk mitigation initiative.

“Lawyers’ ability to work remotely while continuing to be effective and productive has been proven for those departments that have offered the right supporting technology and processes,” the report says. “This new dynamic brings a host of opportunities — the ability to scale back office space and to hire talent or search for new suppliers beyond the usual geographic limitations. Departments also can offer a more flexible employee experience that fits around the individual, not the work location.”

Lessons learned and capabilities tested during the global pandemic — across technological, cultural, and operational realms — have equipped GC and their teams to deliver high-value strategic guidance in the years to come.

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