This year’s GC strategy summit attracted another stellar audience. There were repeat offenders lured back by the anticipation of Portuguese sunshine (which unfortunately failed to materialise) and also many new faces. As the GC’s role continues to evolve and embrace ever more challenges, there was a lot of soul searching this year.
Ethics, diversity and inclusion were the main topics of debate, with other areas of discussion including how to navigate an increasingly complex risk landscape, which focused on people risk, data security, cyber security and Brexit. More introspective topics included: how to hire, retain and motivate teams to continue to provide excellent legal services, and how to create capacity in legal departments to allow in-house lawyers to successfully avoid mission creep.
SRA focus on the in-house community
The SRA provided the regulator’s perspective on future trends and the profile of the in-house sector. One of their key campaigns has been a “Question of Trust”, which engaged over 5000 solicitors and members of the public on professional standards and what should happen when things go wrong. One of the questions asked was what sanction should apply if a solicitor had stolen money from the client account. Responses were surprisingly mixed, with some solicitors considering that such conduct did not merit serious action. Similarly, when asked about what should be done if a General Counsel failed to tell their CEO about allegations of bribery within their organisation, some solicitor respondents did not grasp the role of the in-house solicitor.
The profile of the in-house community that the SRA shared showed a diverse group, with the overall numbers of solicitors embedded in organisations increasing and a strong presence in the public sector. As 20% of all registered solicitors now work in-house, it is no wonder that the SRA is turning its attention to the in-house community. The next step of its programme of regulatory reform will revamp and simplify the SRA Code of Conduct and Handbook from its current lengthy rules based version to a principles and outcomes based version. As part of that work, the proposals will make it clear what applies to individual solicitors, including in-house solicitors, and there will be steps to remove Rule 4 and free-up in-house solicitors to offers some legal services more widely.
On education and training, the regulator has looked afresh at apprenticeships to ensure that the brightest and most able from across society can find cost effective routes into the profession. Proposals for a single Solicitors Qualifying Examination are designed to allow modern assessment of the high professional standards needed to enter the profession. The proposals are expected to be discussed over many months and GCs were encouraged to get involved.
Technology solutions: high and low tech
Technology definitely had its place at the summit this year, with early innovators giving testimonials of what had worked for them. One creative, low-tech innovation suggested was publishing a rate card for internal legal departments to demonstrate to the business what they would have had to pay external counsel for the work done by the legal department.
High-tech solutions were also championed, including:
- Building customised legal department portals to allow the appropriate triaging of legal services.
- Pushing out self-service contracts to the sales teams.
- Sending commoditisable high-volume contract work to LPOs and other alternative legal service providers.
- Up-skilling internal resources to work on high-profile, high-risk, sexy work. (Risk is sexy, allegedly).
Nevertheless, for the majority of legal departments represented at the summit, Excel spreadsheets and Sharepoint still dominate, although disruptors are entering this space. For example, there was much excitement about a “posh filing” app, which enabled matter management through email. Some rebels even reported that their businesses had abandoned Microsoft and Outlook for the world of Google and Gmail, invoking admiration and horror in equal quantities from their peers.
End-to-end management systems
Early and would-be technology adopters were united in their desire for an end-to-end system that allows document and workflow (including email) management. This system would incorporate electronic contracting with in-built e-signature capabilities, automated playbooks, real-time spend and time recording, dashboard and reporting capabilities and analytics. It would also red-flag special contract terms such as payment dates, options and termination dates.
Needless to say, such a system would need to tick all the required security boxes. It must also be acceptable to the finance and accounts payable teams, and be capable of being adopted by sales, procurement and marketing. Each stakeholder would then need to be happy to work with only a limited view, with the GC having overall control of the system.
While the tech providers at the summit gulped at the enormity of the proposal, their clients were deadly serious: “We had all of this when we were law firm lawyers, why is it that we have to do without any of this now?” One delegate went as far as to suggest forming an investment committee themselves to develop the idea.