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How to be ‘Chief Executive’ of your own career

Although many in-house lawyers aspire to the top position, some find that on achieving the much coveted GC role, the overwhelming emotion is disappointment.

This is exacerbated by today’s climate where the role of GC is more complicated than ever before. Ben Heineman, former GC of General Electric, advocates looking at the role as if you have a one day contract. You will change, what you do will change, even the company itself may change out of all recognition.

Those who are most driven to push for the top role – natural high achievers – may well end up being the most disenchanted once it is achieved.

For general counsel this may mean aspiring to move up the food chain to a bigger company or it may even mean aiming for growth outside of the legal arena.


From Client to Colleague

Three lawyers at UK rail infrastructure company Network Rail discuss the recent restructure of the legal team and subsequent drive to integrate members with the business.

The restructure saw legal move from a centralised function run along practice area lines, to a devolved, cross-disciplinary structure following the ten Network Rail Routes.

The legal team built its profile within the company by spending time with other key areas of the business. This ‘virtuous circle’ allows the business to understand what legal do and vice versa so that working together is more natural and effective.

Spending time with the business often includes literally being on the ground and visiting projects. The legal team can see the reality of what it advises on and can show the business that it is fundamentally engaged with what the company does.

This more engaged approach means members of the legal team are better placed to truly advise above and beyond legal issues on business and strategy and are more likely to be accepted as part of that discussion.


What I wish I’d known

New in-house lawyers are compelled to develop a complete set of both legal and business skills to succeed. We spoke to legal heads around the globe to uncover useful tips for the first few months of the job.

Tips for new in-house counsel:

Build a detailed understanding of the sector your company operates in – beyond purely legal and regulatory requirements.

Get to know your company – who’s who, how they work, the values and culture.

Take control and reach out to other in-house lawyers, even beyond your sector.

Be prepared to shoulder some risk in order to give advice that is commercial, and to solve problems, even if they’re outside your comfort zone.

Listen to the different stakeholders in the organisation, and understand their drivers.


What’s your IP strategy?

Are companies doing enough to protect and advance their IP rights? One IP expert believes that businesses need to ecome more involved in lobbying to protect their long-term IP interests, in the same way as with other regulatory issues.

What can companies do?

Map IP issues with broader business priorities and corporate engagement plans, then identify the key issues to focus on, and the best bodies to approach.

Approach their own governments for guidance in finding the best channels to convey any concerns to the parties involved in pertinent trade agreements.

Interact with the European Commission to publicise IP issues of concern as EU laws are being formulated.

Be heedful of China’s IP policies. The PRC is adopting a tougher, but more collaborative stance on IP with a greater focus on the digital space. It is engaging in bilateral dialogue with the EU and other countries on IP issues, creating a good opportunity for companies to feed in their views.

Make use of the growing international network of governmental IP attachés.


Rules of Engagement

What role might the legal department need to play in determining how to proceed in a conflict zone? Why might this be something you need to think about even if you don’t have operations in such places? We ask an insurance expert and a general counsel.

Legal should be involved from the very beginning. When business colleagues present the business case for entering a new environment, lawyers can bring objectivity and a different perspective to the table.

In any situation where the rule of law is light, a company’s internal policies come to the fore, and the legal team will play a major role in formulating these.

But companies can operate effectively in conflict zones if the right precautions are taken. There can even be opportunities for real engagement with the community via CSR programmes which actually help mitigate the effects of conflict and take the first steps towards regeneration.


Whistle-blowers and the in-house lawyer

In-house lawyers face dilemmas in a world where they are expected to act as ‘the company conscience’, but also to create value and take a business perspective. Corporate lines of reporting can be unclear, as can a sense of who the client is. Legal privilege for in-house counsel investigating allegations of wrongdoing is ambiguous in many jurisdictions.

In the US the trend is for a separation between ethics and the legal department. But should general counsel be kept unaware of whistleblower allegations?

After Dodd-Frank, the SEC can award a whistleblower between 10% and 30% of the fine levied on a company. Some believe this could incentivise people to report wrongdoing for financial gain rather than out of a sense of integrity, but others point to the fact that a claim has to have merit to succeed. As many vindicated whistleblowers know, career prospects might be drastically curtailed after reporting.