REUTERS | Sukree Sukplang

GC Leadership Series: leading small and medium legal teams forum 2015

I recently attended the GC Leadership Series leading small and medium legal teams forum 2015.

Dominic Bacon, Managing director of Squaring the Circle, one of the presenters of the first session of the day, remarked that a GC of an SME can be a very lonely role. However, by the end of the day, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it didn’t have to be quite so lonely. The day was filled with great advice from the presenters and thoughtful interaction from the participants; there was much camaraderie and support all around.

For the GCs leading small and medium legal teams who did not make it to the forum, I thought I would share my personal top eight takeaways.

1. Role or function?

There is a difference between the role and the function of a GC. To perform the function well, you need to have the right technical expertise; to perform the role well, you need to have the right behaviours. GCs in SMEs often have the opportunity to be more influential than GCs of larger organisations. Developing appropriate behaviours should be as important as keeping up with your technical skills to build up the essential relationships you require to maintain your influence.

2. Which hat suits you?

As GC of an SME, there are often other hats that you can wear as a natural extension of your job. These include: HR, compliance, risk, company secretary, investor relations and PR, to name but a few. For example, being a company secretary, is a great way to have a role on the board without being a director. However, as lawyers by training (if not by nature and personality) are predisposed to be cautious and risk averse, not every hat would be a comfortable fit.

3. How many hats can you wear at a time?

The answer is probably just one. While you may like to own several hats, realistically, you should probably really only wear one hat at a time. In a smaller business where there are limited resources for the various necessary functions, it is too easy for a GC to volunteer for additional responsibilities. However, it is important to stop and think through whether the additional functions are compatible and do not cause conflict with your real job.

For example, as GC you report to the business but as head of compliance, you should be reporting to the regulators, is there potential for conflict in such a situation? Another classic example of potential conflict would be for a GC to also assume the role of a trustee of the company’s pension funds. A presenter on the day, Stephen Godsell (Press Association) did have to wear the two distinct hats of GC and trustee of the company’s pension funds and advised that he was only able to perform both roles by keeping them very separate.

4. Engage or disengage from politics?

While every lawyer strives to be independent, this is not always easy for a GC of an SME, whose success depends on how well he is aligned with the CEO of the business. Although it is necessary to be aware of politics, it may be possible to avoid taking part in the political games. If, in every tricky situation, you can clearly show that you are acting in the best interest of the company, you will earn the respect of your peers and build your influence in the company.

5. What does your CEO think of you?

One of the panellists mentioned a law firm survey which showed that 40% of GCs interviewed thought they were doing a good job but only 14% of their CEOs agreed with them. Consider whether your business has hired you to be a functionary, a corporate policeman, a transaction junkie or counsel. Are you clear about the mission, the strategies and objectives of the company and can you clearly articulate the part you as GC have to play? It is important to keep asking for feedback from the company to ensure that you are keeping pace with business objectives as they evolve. Conducting formal and informal surveys regularly (and judiciously) can help you discover whether what you are spending time on is what the business thinks you are should be spending your time on.

6. What does your team think of you?

A top tip on keeping connected with your team (if you are lucky enough to have one) is to make sure you fully understand what people on your team are doing and that they understand what is it that you “do”. Whether through an informal 2-3 minutes every day or regular more formal weekly meetings, make sure you clearly share with your team what your picture of success looks like and what the issues and challenges are that the team needs to deal with. Hire the best people you can, and then drive empowerment by letting these people make their own decisions. Not everyone on your team needs to be skilled in every aspect of the legal function but, collectively, the team must have the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the needs of the business.

7. Do you know what you are being measured on?

If you don’t, then you need to set up your own metrics. Businesses like to say that their decisions are based on data. So what data can you as GC provide the business with to demonstrate your value? Data can include: ratio of lawyers to colleagues, spend vs budget, total legal spend as a percentage of revenue, time recording and turnaround times. Once you have agreed with the business the metrics for measuring your performance and your team’s performance, you will need to clearly communicate and publicise your success stories back to the business to ensure that you generate the maximum amount of goodwill for you and your team.

8. How do you actually look over the curve?

As demonstrated by the ECJ’s recent finding that the EU/US safe harbour decision for the transfer of personal data from the EU to the US is invalid  (see Legal update, ECJ rules that the EU-US safe harbor arrangement is invalid), it can take only one court judgment to throw a business into disarray. In-house lawyers have the opportunity to be slightly ahead of the game (and indeed their businesses would expect them to be) when it comes to horizon scanning for the curve balls that can set your business off its path. As GC, you need to:

  • Know the business and its strategies so that you understand what laws and developments to look out for over the curve.
  • Be aware of your own blind-spots in helping execute these strategies. For example, do you need a better understanding of finance or operations?
  • Put in place systems to help you horizon scan. Know-how services, from providers such as Practical Law, and law firm databases that are provided free to clients, can all assist.
  • Keep pace with technological solutions and factor in whether these can assist you in your position.
  • Build and invest in your wider network of like-minded GCs and in-house lawyers so that you are tuned into industry and other developments that may affect your business.

In-depth coverage of the forum will be published on Practical Law in November 2015 and will then be added to the Business know-section of Practical Law In-house.

These conferences are a fantastic opportunity to receive practical guidance and work through the challenges and issues that everyone faces, and to meet and network with industry professionals. They are provided by Practical Law’s online learning solution at

Thomson Reuters Legal UK & I Karen Ngo

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