REUTERS | Tulips are pictured in a public park in Vienna, Austria, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Notes from The Economist 2021 General Counsel Summit

At the beginning of the month, I attended The Economist’s General Counsel (GC) summit in London, which brought together a cross-section of senior in-house counsel from a range of industry sectors. Here are some of the themes discussed across the day.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG)

Expectations of what the GC role involves have been changing over recent decades and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this transformation. GCs are now regarded as business leaders and the pandemic demonstrated their pivotal position in helping organisations to work through a crisis.

GCs can play a leading role in one of the key areas currently near the top of the board’s agenda: ESG. Their unique position provides them with a bird’s eye view of an organisation, enabling them to join the dots between different business functions and help avoid initiatives becoming siloed.

For further information, see Environmental, social and governance (ESG) toolkit.

Next generation lawyers

Technical legal skills are now simply regarded as “table stakes” for in-house lawyers and the focus is shifting to developing other skills, including:

  • Agility.
  • Resilience.
  • Influencing and persuading.
  • Strategy.
  • Business acumen.
  • Data analysis.
  • Project management.
  • Critical thinking and reasoning.
  • Listening.
  • Flexibility.
  • Empathy.

Businesses need their lawyers to be rounded individuals who clients can engage with effectively. They should be encouraged to get out into the business and spend time with their colleagues on the ground. They must also be capable of communicating and presenting information in ways that the business understands.

Post COVID-19 workplace

It will take time to define the post COVID-19 workplace but a “one size fits all” approach is unlikely to suffice. Getting your return to the office strategy wrong could ultimately lead to departures from your team.

Lawyers believe in the benefits of a flexible workplace but also want meaningful opportunities to connect and bring teams together. Hybrid working may make it more difficult to integrate new joiners into an organisation’s culture.

There are also concerns about how ideas and creativity can be generated in a hybrid working environment. As much professional development is often achieved through osmosis and observation, junior lawyers may miss out when they are working remotely.

The changes in ways of working necessitated by the pandemic, together with the associated lockdowns, put unprecedented pressure on lawyers’ mental health and wellbeing. Wellbeing should continue to be a focus area for GCs for both those continuing to work from home and those who have returned to the office.

For further information, see Returning to the office toolkit.

Digital transformation projects

High-quality, digital customer experience drives growth in successful businesses. The legal team needs to keep pace with digital transformation and become more familiar with technology, otherwise it risks becoming irrelevant. GCs can learn from other parts of the business that have already undergone digital transformations.

Instead of merely supporting the business, lawyers need to become more client-centric and make the legal team part of its success. They need to be encouraged to work more closely with software developers and the IT team, and become comfortable with agile methodologies and data analytics.

GCs should consider recruiting individuals with different skills and backgrounds into the legal team, such as legal engineers or project managers. Legal operations is a growth area of the legal industry and hiring a legal operations manager can give the GC the room to be more strategic and to focus on giving legal advice.

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