Given multiple natural disasters, horrific extremist violence and the BRIC downturns in 2015, it would seem there’s a lot for counsel to fear this year. But for global in-house lawyers, the horizon looks sunny, and not only based on my view from 30,000 feet above the Atlantic. Here are four truly bright signs for global corporate counsel’s future:
1) You are now a full business partner
As in-house lawyers and multinational legal leaders, you have more influence and status in your organizations than ever, and more opportunity to shine. On Jan. 7 at the Eversheds law firm in London, six chapter authors of a new book (including me, we were American, Dutch, English, German, Indian and Italian) shared our outlooks on General Counsel in the 21st Century.
Moderating the panel discussion with about 35 senior global in-house counsel guests, International Bar Association Director of Legal Policy & Research, Jane Ellis (hailing from Australia), said it was the IBA’s first book ever devoted to in-house counsel, and hoped to shed light on the opportunities and challenges.
Abhijit Mukhopadhyay, president of legal for the Indian global conglomerate Hinduja Group and contributor to the book, said: “It’s not just a matter of where we sit in the organizational hierarchy, as long as we are adding value. Today, many of us are an integral part of decision-making.” Another General Counsel commented that the in-house lawyer has become so connected to the business in many companies that “we’ve moved beyond aspiring to be business partner.”
2) Your help is needed in tricky foreign markets
It’s promising that global in-house counsel in 2016 have a wider group of stakeholders. As your company’s leadership is more diverse and your operations cross continents, you have more impact. As your company’ international revenues rise, the demand (and appreciation) rises for in-house pros that can effectively navigate multiple legal frameworks and the many stakeholders. This also supports the requirement to be independent.
Your company’s managers as well as your investors are more aware today of how complex and risky cross-border disputes and joint ventures can be, especially in emerging markets. That moves you, global in-house counsel, up the value chain. These days you are asked to provide advice and insights earlier, not only in transactions or disputes but also in corporate strategy and product development.
From what I hear, that involvement makes your jobs a lot more fun. Given M&A statistics in the last year, you’ll likely be advising on more growth-related activities in 2016.
3) You can help leaders make better executive decisions
The combination of changing corporate governance rules and regulatory officials’ assertiveness in much of Europe, North America and elsewhere makes your role crucial to the enterprise. While a government relations role is common for in-house legal in U.S. companies, it was long absent from the in-house lawyer’s job elsewhere. That’s changing fast.
Boards of directors are now asked by regulators to fully understand and stay current with corporate risks and controls. Directors are expected to identify legal implications of various types of risk. As in-house lawyer, and particularly legal leaders, you are now a valued resource to translate complex regulations into information that guides big decisions.
While unthinkable in mainland Europe a decade ago, it’s not uncommon now for the chairman and some directors to help select a new general counsel. Bruno Cova, for years a general counsel and now with Paul Hastings in Italy, points out, “The word “legal” appears 39 times in the new (2015) OECD/G20 Principles on Corporate Governance, while the word ‘director’ appears only 8 times.” The term General Counsel appears for the first time ever. Cova says “it’s relevant for the general counsel that OECD’s governance principles for 34 countries mention legal so often, and combine it with reputational risk, as we are seeing with banking regulations.”
4) Your work to uphold the law can make a difference
Another reason to be bullish, global in-house lawyers, is your ability to make a difference by promoting the rule of law. Last month I lunched in Manhattan among a sea of prominent law firm partners, chief legal officers and others gathered to celebrate International Senior Lawyer’s Project’s 20th Anniversary. After congratulating ISLP for its impressive pro bono achievements globally, keynoter President Bill Clinton told us, “Lawyers, your work has more impact today than before.”
I was surprised to hear Clinton mention “rule of law” and “corruption” so many times in 20-minute+ comments (and Hilary only once, briefly). Clinton told the crowd that for people to thrive on earth, nations must meet three criteria: “have compassion, respect the rule of law, and be free of corruption.” He believes that to promote a world with “more promise than peril,” we must celebrate our differences: “Inclusive societies have shared rules… no one owns the truth.”
Clinton called us to action. “Every time you do something to promote the rule of law, you help create a way for people to cooperate without battle.” I agree that global counsel inside and outside have an opportunity to make a difference, both with pro bono work and as they guide individuals and groups worldwide to cooperate and work within the rules.
Reality check? It’s true that this rosy outlook depends a lot on how well you 1) develop or deepen the competencies needed in your job; 2) improve your efficiency/better use your time; and 3) build strong teams and better delegate. That’s for another column.