The best seat in the house: the unique role of the modern GC

Richard Tapp argues that GCs can define their companies like never before.

‘So, what do you do?’ A straightforward question – in my case asked by a new chairman, clearly expecting a simple answer. But, for any in-house lawyer, where to start? Do you talk about your legal specialism? About the business risks that you identify and manage? About the way you provide and source legal advice? Or that you keep your chairman out of jail?

I have often thought that the in-house lawyer has the best job in any organisation. We see every aspect of what it does – the impact of the decisions of the past, and the insights and opportunities for the future. We see the place of the organisation in society. We can shape and influence how it behaves, how it is perceived, and how it does business.

It was, then, the question that I used in starting conversations with a number of general counsel, those who they work with – from a chairman, a chief executive and a law firm – to those who study and write about them, how they develop, how they work, and the issues facing them.
The answers, in a book I am editing, The Future of the In-House Lawyer: The General Counsel Revolution, are varied, fascinating – and even surprising and heartening. Several things stand out:

  • First – the influence that an effective GC can have on their organisation. While always underpinned by technical excellence, professionalism and respect, the role goes beyond – in many cases significantly beyond – that which might be expected. The role of the trusted adviser depends absolutely on trust and confidence having been developed with colleagues and stakeholders and which sees the best GCs at the heart of influencing and shaping the organisation itself, its structure, strategies and the very way in which it works.
  • Second – the innovations GCs can bring to their organisations, and make happen without ever having position power. From innovative sourcing and delivery structures, to broad relationships with a range of external law firms and providers, to the use of technology, or the handling of corporate crises – in each case and many more, there are examples of the legal role making a key difference to the organisation.
  • Third – the way that the best GCs will step up and take responsibility and accountability, sometimes for the most difficult of issues, but also for establishing structures to prevent or avoid the problem, or allow the organisation to work its way around them.
  • Fourth – the need for people to take responsibility for their own development and those of their teams. That may sound basic to any professional, but the skills which a senior in-house lawyer needs – whether of persuasion, of networking, of business, or of management – are not ones that are taught at law school and yet without them the ability of the GC to do their role is constrained.
  • Fifth – the way that GCs can and do define their own role. I asked colleagues from a range of sectors and organisations to contribute as well as people with many years of experience in the role to someone who could write about the new GC. There may be similarities but each role is clearly very different from the other. Strategies that work in one would clearly fail in another. The needs and demands of organisations obviously change hugely over time as the organisation and its external environment develop. The defining factor of success is clearly the ability of the GC to recognise where their own skills lie, to be fleet of foot, ahead of the curve and consistently proactive.

If there is one stand-out, though, it must be that the GC is implicitly the custodian – what perhaps used to be called the conscience of the company. The way the lawyer can see not just the legal position, but its implications for the organisation – how it interacts with its people, its stakeholders and the broader society. Whether through an understanding of the reputation, ethical stance or external perception of the organisation, a personal belief in its value system, or the application of the clarity of reasoning, this is one of the most valuable and perhaps least celebrated elements of the job.

The in-house lawyer makes a real and substantial difference to the organisation – usually unsung, often unrecognised, and perhaps, it might be said, not always fairly rewarded. The opportunities to define and differentiate the organisations which they serve have never been greater, and for those prepared to step up to the very real challenges of the future, the future of the in-house lawyer is very bright.

Richard Tapp is general counsel of Carillion and editor of the upcoming book, The Future of the In-House Lawyer: The General Counsel Revolution.