The role of a General Counsel continues to evolve beyond providing legal services and acting as a trusted advisor to the business.
As General Counsels, you have the opportunity to provide strategic guidance and leadership on issues of a commercial nature, as well as those with a broader environmental and societal impact. Doing this effectively, however, means getting to grips with a raft of issues that are impacting the landscape you operate in – all while meeting internal demands for enhanced productivity, efficiency improvements and cost savings.
In a VUCA world, where events like the Covid-19 pandemic and Ukraine crisis continue to disrupt supply chains and cause devastation, you need to ensure that your team is capable of managing emerging risks and navigating the changing laws and regulatory landscape for your organisation.
You also need to prepare for the future of work, and think about how you will manage new hybrid or flexible working models while keeping the rights and wellbeing of your team front and centre. If you get this right, you’ll build a high-performing legal function and culture that attracts and retains top legal talent.
Before we explore strategies for managing these challenges, let’s unpack some of the key developments that are changing the business landscape and impacting the General Counsel role.
As companies grow their digital footprints, this opens up more opportunities for cyber criminals. Threats such as ransomware attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and prevalent, creating new legal considerations and challenges. Up until recently, cyber policies were directed by the IT team. Now, cybersecurity experts believe that legal should play a central role in helping the business understand, prepare for, and address cyber threats. Given the pace at which they can escalate and the scale of their potential impact, cyber breaches can bring a business to its knees and have long-lasting legal implications. In the case of a ransomware attack, for example, there are sanctions risks associated with facilitating ransomware payments.
Cyber incidents require robust legal governance across the whole response. General Counsels should maintain an up-to-date understanding of cyber risks, and work closely with IT and other functions to develop a sound cybersecurity strategy and incident response plan.
The climate crisis
At a time when the UK’s largest companies and financial institutions must report on climate-related risks and opportunities in line with TCFD1 recommendations, leaders in the legal industry are calling on GCs to spearhead climate crisis response programmes. Whether they are part of a regulated entity or not, GCs are well-positioned to guide their companies in this area, as trusted advisors on a range of issues that impact the business and its future.
In addition to advising the business on new and existing regulations and best practice, GCs also have deep experience in balancing risk and opportunity. This knowledge can be of a great strategic value when a business needs to weigh commercial interests against their net zero commitments. GCs can also help their companies guard against “greenwashing”, move beyond a compliance mindset, and build a more proactive and impactful response to climate change.
The digital future
As a strategic advisor to the business, it’s essential to be mindful of the digital trends that could transform and potentially disrupt the commercial and regulatory landscape. These include non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the metaverse. While it may seem like NFTs are just a fad, some have fetched eye-watering sums. One example is the group of NFTs by digital artist Beeple that was minted by Christies and sold for over $69 million last year.
For those still getting their heads around the concept: NFTs are cryptographic tokens that can represent real-world objects like artwork or real estate, or something more abstract like someone’s identity. These tokens exist on a blockchain where they can be sold and transferred securely between owners. However, as they are non-fungible, they are not interchangeable and can never be traded at equivalency (like cryptocurrency can, for example). NFTs may be on the fringe now, but their market could expand exponentially along with another trend to watch – the metaverse.
Simply put, the metaverse is a convergence of technologies that create an immersive, three-dimensional virtual world that could be the next generation of the internet. It may all sound like science fiction, but with Bloomberg predicting that global metaverse revenue opportunity could reach close to $800 billion in 2024, this is an area well worth understanding. As the metaverse is a space where people can attend events, and purchase products and property (via NFT), GCs may want to start thinking about the potential legal implications should their organisation or supply chain partners ever transact metaverse.
Against a backdrop of continued economic uncertainty, soaring inflation is pushing up the cost of business in the UK and beyond. Controlling costs has long been a concern for in-house counsel since corporate legal departments have traditionally been evaluated by financial metrics. Now, with inflation hitting 40-year highs in the UK, General Counsels could come under increased pressure from the board to control expenses. This may require some flexible thinking about how to resource legal teams in a more cost-efficient way, to ensure sufficient skills and resources to deal with new challenges and projects, and continue delivering a reliable service to the business.
Stress and burnout
Study after study has revealed rising levels of stress and burnout in the legal profession, and it’s becoming clear that health and wellbeing are some of the biggest issues facing in-house legal teams today. For instance, a recent YouGov survey of more than 100 practising lawyers found that 9 in 10 experienced stress or burnout at work. Key contributing factors are large workloads and a lack of recognition for the work they are doing.
If they are not already doing so, it is time for GCs to reflect and evaluate how they can adapt to address this issue and ensure all team members – whether they work in the office or remotely, in a traditional or flexible role – feel they are appreciated, acknowledged, and fairly treated. LawCare has found that regular catch-ups and appraisals help to “bolster confidence in personal development and reduce anxiety”. These should form part of every General Counsels management strategy.
3 Strategies for General Counsels to remain ahead
It’s essential to think about how you can structure your team to stay ahead of these trends and continue to deliver value to the business. Here are three strategies to consider:
#1 Manage peaks and troughs cost-efficiently:
When you’re under pressure to control costs and can’t spend on permanent recruitment, having a team of flexible legal consultants gives you the agility to remain agile during times of uncertainty or deal with peaks in workflow, all while managing your budget effectively.
#2 Prioritise strategic projects:
When the legal department is overloaded, having a network of flexible legal consultants who can act as an extension of your in-house team also enables you to keep key operations running smoothly while you focus on strategic projects. For example, when the British Business Bank needed extra resources to deal with an increase in their workload while launching new loan programmes during the pandemic, they called in Obelisk Support’s services.
#3 Build in ‘legal as a service’ agility:
Having access to a virtual team of high-quality legal talent with the legal skills you need can help you manage change in a VUCA world. It can also give you vital extra time to plan ahead and focus on improving the way your team operates within the business.
These approaches and additional capabilities-on-demand can put General Counsels and their in-house teams in a stronger position to play a more strategic role in the months and years ahead – not only within the business, but also in the industry, contributing to a more agile and future-focused legal profession.