15 September 2020 | By Marten Männis
Brand building and establishing oneself: the challenges of a General Counsel in 2020
As the world has rapidly changed over the course of the year, the position and functioning of lawyers has come under the spotlight as well. One of the more rigid and conservative fields has swiftly had to modernise and look towards the future. From a decentralised legal team to managing online repositories, the new normal has definitely been a challenge even the most veteran of general counsel.
In the midst of such developments, best practice sharing amongst peers becomes even more vital, given the urgency to materialise effectiveness within legal teams as quickly as possible. An excellent guide for that can be seen in the new CMS General Counsel Report, titled ‘Creating Connections, Bridging Gaps’, the press release of which can be found here. The report was finalised in collaboration with ECLA, with many of ECLA representatives and affiliates taking part in the discussions elaborated in the report.
The publication essentially consists of a total of 101 questions, asked from 18 high-level European general counsel. Their answers and experience drive the narrative of the report and provides valuable insight into the evolution and the workings of a general counsel in various sectors and industries. The scope of the questions varies extensively as well: ranging from value and brand development, coupled with KPIs; to conflict management issues; to the role of risk management and compliance; to combining legal interests with the business side; and much more.
After going through the report, one can truly conclude that it is a comprehensive insight into the workings of a general counsel in 2020. Whether corporate lawyers support it or not, there is no doubt that the position has changed considerably even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent governmental shutdowns. Ask a corporate lawyer from a few decades ago how important ethical and regulatory issues were then. Or how the proportion of contract management has gradually decreased, with other areas taking hold.
The General Counsel Report even notes some discussions amongst general counsel that in five years’ time, external legal work in their teams will mostly focus on low-level legal work, which enables in-house teams to focus on more actual and high-level tasks. This is a complete turn from just a few decades ago, where in-house teams focused on routine procedures, with high-risk issues being outsourced to external legal services.
Even issues such as brand building for legal teams is a novel idea. Up to just recently, there has been little concern for such a conservative business-facing field to build their image within the company and beyond. Nevertheless, this is certainly at the forefront of many general counsel across Europe, as the connection between value and brand building is being emphasised much more in 2020.
The findings were also evident in the recent CMS study on Latin American general counsel, whereby considerable proportion of general counsel have assumed additional responsibilities since starting in their roles, with many of the new responsibilities pertaining to compliance and ethics matters. As the role of general counsel and their legal teams has gradually increased, the purpose of external legal counsel for companies has shifted as well. With this shift, the position of legal within the management hierarchy has favourably shifted for lawyers as well.
The report is an excellent source for understanding the role of corporate legal in today’s businesses. Though somewhat idealistic, it presents a cohesive picture in the evolution of the role, coupled with the opinions of high-level decision makers across Europe and provides an idea as to how the role will evolve throughout the decade. It will certainly be interesting to look back at this report in five years’ time and see whether the predictions made by the general counsel hold water.