Corporate Counsel Leadership Forum Sessions – “Let’s Talk”
“Do more with less” may be a common refrain in today’s business environment. But for corporate legal departments, it may be “Do a lot more with less” – and many are rising to meet the challenge.
At the inaugural Corporate Counsel Leadership Forum in New York earlier this month, leaders from global businesses met to discuss how corporate legal departments are looking to hone their skills to meet the demands of their organizations.
During one of the event’s break-out sessions, entitled “Managing Up: On Communicating with and Supporting the C-Suite & Board of Directors,” Nancie Lataille, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, observed that, “Strong technical legal skills are the price of admission when you take on [the role of] general counsel,” but those in the C-suite also expect “superb business acumen, strong communication skills and the ability to influence.”
As Marie-José Nadeau, chair, World Energy Council, noted, corporate governance and regulatory action – including Sarbanes-Oxley or the Cadbury Report in the UK – have changed board responsibilities. As boards rely on general counsel for guidance on important issues, it likewise, paves the way for legal counsel to be more involved in governance issues.
Panelist Jeffrey Ellis, chief legal officer & corporate secretary, Canadian Pacific, described that the global financial crisis has challenged corporate counsel further.
“It’s been a real time of significant pressure on the general counsel’s office, on compliance and on the relationship with the board,” he added. In response, Ellis noted that committing time and energy to board education is key, but also discussing trends and where industries may be headed, particularly in the financial services industry. “The role of the general counsel has become more significant because of a competitive need to be more innovative,” Ellis said. He also noted the obvious need for counsel to be in the C-suite to help manage risk.
As Nithya Das, senior vice president & general counsel, AppNexus, described, even smaller firms and start-ups should take guidance from in-house counsel as they rapidly grow and take shape. Das noted how her work as in-house counsel helps the organization “see the forest and not just the trees,” and becomes particularly important as the organization begins to take-on capital from external investors.
“As the organization gets bigger, you have to help your business teams navigate through, ‘is this responsible risk?’” Das explained. “The ultimate end-goal is revenue, but let’s ask ourselves, ‘is this responsible revenue?’ and helping them understand what might be reasonable risk for us two years ago is no longer reasonable risk for our company.”
Explaining these risks to other business leaders, as Nadeau described, means that general counsel must learn to listen and communicate effectively, which can be a humbling experience as general counsel often has a need to show that they are “the smartest in the room.” Ellis echoed the same sentiment, noting that with greater regulatory complexity and “heightened standards” in play, the C-suite needs someone who can listen, communicate and be open to options that might extend beyond the right or wrong answer to a solution.
The importance of communication also was noted during a session later in the day, “Managing Down: Lessons on Hiring, Firing and Developing Talent.”
“What keeps my team engaged … is I talk about them being real business partners [with] the business, and they can’t be business partners [with] the business unless I’m communicating to them appropriately,” Kathy Leo, chief legal and people officer of Gilt Groupe said.
As Michael A. Brizel, executive vice president and general counsel of FreshDirect, LLC, noted, in a business environment that is changing – particularly businesses in a growth trajectory – each day can be different. Even for larger, more established organizations, the current business environment is a significant factor, noted Sharon Hall, vice president, office of the general counsel at the Legal Department of Goldman, Sachs & Co. For her organization, the recent financial crisis took a significant toll on organizational morale, particularly for an organization such as hers which was not “used to downsizing.”
“You can say it now, looking back … it was the best of times for the legal department at Goldman because there was so much change so quickly,” she explained. “We were always regulatory lawyers, but people now became ‘uber’ regulatory lawyers – everyone had to learn bank holding company law, everybody had to be at the frontline – it was a very collegial time.”
The experience brought other issues into focus, but the stress, as Brizel noted, can be a boon to experienced lawyers which can be steadfast in navigating complexity.
“In times of crisis, I have seen legal departments really, really step-up, as long as they understand what’s expected and how they fit in the big scheme of things,” he added.