Eric Dale, Chief Legal Officer, Nielsen

In 2015, Eric Dale went in-house at Nielsen after spending more than 13 years in private practice. But it wasn’t his first stint in-house, having served as a CLO during the dotcom boom. He shares his insights on how the role has changed and what the future may hold.

Working at a dotcom was the first time I really got inside a business and became part of the leadership team – and obviously the dotcom era was a moment in time that was incredibly instructive for people to understand what a bubble looks like.

Some things were very different to my role now at Nielsen, and some things were very similar. It was more of a start-up environment, the legal department was much smaller, and it was largely a US-driven company. Nielsen is a much larger department, and it’s a much larger, global company. That said, the fundamentals are pretty consistent across the board. You’re trying to help grow the company, do so in an ethical, compliant way, and you’re continuing to try and be creative as you address issues.

In legal services, I think there are certain consistencies and evolutions. Technology is very different now to when I was in-house last time, and I think technology will likely be very different five, ten, 15 years from now.

If you’re in a small organization, the opportunity to have a broader role is greater. As an organization grows, things tend to get a little more siloed and remits tend to narrow a bit. But on the other hand, CEOs for the last decade or so have really begun to see that general counsel with certain skillsets and temperaments can add value in areas beyond the traditional scope of work assigned to a GC or CLO.

One thing I’m seeing in other companies – and have experienced myself here at Nielsen – is that the remit of the general counsel tends to be expanding. For instance, I joined Nielsen as the CLO and had responsibility for the legal department. Since then, my remit has expanded to include security, corporate social responsibility, government relations and public policy, as well as enterprise risk management. The job is becoming broader (which I happen to like) and I think boards and CEOs are recognizing that a GC may bring a host of skills that extend beyond simply running a legal department.

I don’t know exactly what I expected when I became general counsel at Nielsen, but it is different. In a law firm, you’ve got a large portfolio of clients, but once you go inside, you have one client. It can be a large, complicated client, which Nielsen is – with around 45,000 people spread across the globe in more than 100 countries, and multiple businesses in various legal and regulatory regimes.

You get much more involved in the business of the company in a leadership role. The kinds of things that cross your desk are incredibly diverse, and as diverse as private practice was, this is much more so.

Another key difference is that as outside counsel you try really hard to develop close relationships with your clients, but there’s a certain distance that you’re never going to be able to overcome, regardless of how good you are. Ultimately, you give advice and then the client takes that advice as an input and makes a business decision. When you’re inside, you give that same advice, but you live with that decision. You can’t walk away, so you have to own it from a perspective that’s not simply about what the law is, but what the company’s risk analysis is, what the business’s objectives are, and a whole host of other factors that you need to synthesize.

I’m not sure that the GC’s skills are going to be radically different ten years from now.

The hierarchy of a corporate structure is much more defined than the hierarchy of a partnership. That colors a lot of how I think about my own behaviors. For instance, when I speak to people, I know that often they are hearing the chief legal officer, they’re not necessarily just hearing a colleague. So trying to think not only about the matter that I’m discussing with them, but also their frame of reference, is a little different than in the past.

In a law firm, they have partners and associates. I initially analogized my position at Nielsen as me being a partner and the rest of the department being associates. I quickly learned that this was a poor analogy! A better analogy is more along the lines of being a managing partner in a law firm and that there are a lot of other partners, as well as associates. At Nielsen we have really smart, accomplished, independent lawyers who have great judgement and can run with matters often with little-to-no input from me – they know how to reach out to me, and I view my role as largely to help them do their jobs and clear obstacles and work through issues when they want a sounding board. That’s a very different dynamic than the frame of mind I came in with.

I read everything when I took the job at Nielsen – I read books, I read articles, I talked to people who were current GCs and former GCs, and there were a lot of themes that came out of that research. First of all, you really need to get to know the business. Second, you really need to develop relationships with people that you’re going to be working with, both vertically and horizontally in a matrix organization. Third, you need to recognize that the breadth of the practice is significant. You can’t be an expert in everything, but you have to have a good working knowledge in a lot of areas. I’d encourage people to go as broad as they can in their current position, whether in-house or in law firms, to make sure they really understand the dynamics that exist beyond their specialty.

I’m not sure that the general counsel’s skills are going to be radically different ten years from now. GCs are always going to have to know the business very well to be effective. They’re going to have to develop strong relationships with executives and with business leaders, and developing leadership skills is going to be critically important. Finally, where GCs are going to excel or not is in having great judgement and being able to communicate their thoughts into a rationale for what they’re discussing. Technology and tools will change over time, but those are just ways to do our job – the skills are going to be the constant.

I think in the future, routine work will be technologized and repetitive jobs will go away – and go away could mean offshore, it could mean go to non-traditional legal service providers, but it’ll likely not be done in-house or by law firms.

People use the word innovation a lot these days, and it means a lot of different things. People naturally think of innovation as connected to technology, and a potential value is that you can create data from experience, which can help from a consistency perspective. At Nielsen, we’ve tried different technologies and software from time to time, and we’ve also worked to create and implement processes to help make our work more efficient and more consistent. We’ve created model forms, knowledge management databases, and certain practices and policies which, coupled with training, teach our department and our internal clients how to accomplish their goals in a more streamlined fashion. We’ve also engaged RFPs in select areas, which has helped reduce costs significantly during a time when, as a company, our revenue has grown – which is a big win.

I think, in future, the pendulum will probably swing back and forth about whether legal departments grow or more work is outsourced but, by and large, my guess is that more work will be insourced. I think it’s ultimately more cost effective to have insourced work, and as you start to focus on paying for the highest value work – it comes back to judgement and expertise – you’ll go outside for that if you happen not to have that in-house, and you’ll pay for that. But you won’t pay for the lower-end work. You’ll either take that in or, more likely, you’ll outsource it to third parties who can do it more efficiently than a law firm.