For years, GCs have argued they wanted to have the ear of the board and the power and responsibility that comes with this. Now, they increasingly have this – but what does it mean in practice?

BT’s recently appointed group GC Sabine Chalmers, who previously served as chief legal officer at Anheuser-Busch InBev, argues that in-house lawyers need to be prepared for the consequences of this new power – more personal accountability when things go wrong.

The subject is just one of a number of hot topics set to be discussed at the Corporate Counsel Forum Europe, which Chalmers will be go chairing alongside BAE GC Philip Bramwellclick here for more information on the event and how to book your place.

You previously worked in the US – how does the role of the GC differ in the UK?

“In the US, the GC has had significant stature within organisations for quite some time because of the litigation environment, but I think this is now changing in the UK as well, given the increasing focus on regulation and reputation.”

What does this increased power mean for GCs in practice?

“I believe that with increased influence comes accountability and responsibility. Historically, the GC role was a perhaps lower-profile, but in many ways pretty ‘safe’ position within organisations. People were often in roles for decades, but probably had roles with less accountability.

“What’s really interesting now is that the legal team – and GCs – have more influence, but they are also being held to account, especially when things don’t go according to plan.

“With leadership comes risk and accountability, so if we want to have a voice at business tables like CFOs or business heads, whose performance is judged on a daily basis, then we need to have the courage to step up and be judged in the same way.”

Taking this additional accountability and pressure into account, do you think it’s a good time to be a GC?

“It’s important for people not to forget that there’s never been a better time to be a GC. You’re now invited to the party but you have to keep earning your place at the table and continuing to build trust, both on an individual basis and by having a great team around you. The influence, responsibility and intellectual challenge that being a GC brings at the moment – especially dealing with increasing litigation, compliance, regulation and reputational risk – means there’s never been a better time to be heard.

“The flipside though is increased accountability – so sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”

How big a role should GCs play in improving diversity within organisations?

“Unfortunately, it is still the case that in a number of management teams the head of HR or legal are often the only diverse team members. I think that puts a disproportionate responsibility on us to be ambassadors of diversity within organisations. This is of course a very exciting opportunity to help bring about change.”