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Guest Post: How General Counsel Can Be Strategic Business Partners

January 29 2019 by Ian Nolan, Brightflag CEO

The trend is clear. A 2017 Mahlab report found 89 percent of general counsel say their senior executive leaders see them as ‘trusted advisors’.

As management asks general counsel to safeguard bottom lines while managing external spend, many chief legal officers now balance roles that include C-suite advisor, governance participant, independent boardroom counsellor, and risk and issues manager.

In this climate, what are some of the ways that general counsel can deliver business value – and act as strategic partners?

As a recent general counsel and chief legal officer for Toll Group, Adam Martin understands the evolving role of corporate legal counsel. He was a senior legal leader for the global transportation and logistics company for almost 20 years.

Why proactive legal leadership adds business value

Martin sees many ways for general counsel to be a good partner to the business. He says modern general counsel must be open to what legal departments can learn from their business colleagues.

“The only way you can stay aligned with the business is by getting out there and meeting people. Particularly the senior leaders. Try to understand what their concerns are. Get the guidance from the board and be able to translate this across your team and the company,” he says.

An effective general counsel can educate broader business units about the legal team’s hot buttons. This proactive approach helps in-house counsel anticipate risk and stay alert for emerging issues.

“You’re not educating the business to make legal decisions without you. You’re helping the business see things before they become a problem. You’re showing them you’re there to help, rather than block,” he says.

Three takeaways about the future of in-house counsel

  • General counsel will increasingly be seen as C-suite executives
  • Cloud-based software will help improve outside counsel management
  • Empirical matter management will help in-house counsel be proactive

How in-house teams can influence corporate culture

Corporate culture is one area of potential proactive focus. As a hub to many business spokes, in-house legal departments – and their general counsel, associate general counsel, legal operations managers, and junior and senior lawyers – are well placed to shape culture positively.

“You’re there to guide the business to make sure what’s being done is legal and more ethical. You don’t serve the business if you are just facilitating commercial outcomes, but of course you’ve got to balance ethical advice with finding legal solutions,” says Martin.

It’s about modelling behaviours beyond the C-suite and boardroom, too. “You always have an ethical mindset and focus on the right way to ensure company governance is working. But the general counsel should be modelling that ethical behaviour and it should be helping to ensure that the ethical considerations are part of any decision,” he says.

How modern software helps manage outside counsel

Championing technology is another means to deliver value as a strategic business partner.

Mahlab’s report shows cost containment, efficiency and value were on the minds of most general counsel in 2017 – and innovation through technology helped them deliver it. It’s the greater empirics, oversight and analysis that many general counsel value.

Martin implemented Brightflag’s e-billing and spend management platform at Toll and understands when and why legal departments need spend management.

“Now the IT solutions enable more granular analysis, where you can break down the type of work firms are doing for you,” says Martin. “You can get right down into how they’re actually breaking the bills down and what they’re doing for a particular matter. It means you can help outside counsel improve the service they deliver for you,” he says.

“Going back 10 years, most of the LegalTech was focused on law firms. It didn’t quite work in-house and when you got a solution you needed to customise it so much you didn’t get what you wanted.

“Now, we’re seeing really sophisticated systems in the cloud with minimal set-up and need for customisation. It’s really powerful. It means even smaller teams can exploit this technology, whereas previously it was only the really large corporates that could afford the IT spend.”

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