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Legal, strategic and right: How the evolution of the role of GCs brings added value to an organisation

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (Photo)

Over the course of 2020 much of what businesses regarded as normal changed, almost overnight. As a result, every business has had to review its strategy. For legal departments, this has meant adopting simultaneous responsive and proactive stances as they help their organisations negotiate change brought on not only by COVID-19 and the resulting business disruption, but also by events that have forced serious conversations about racial injustice. In advising their organisation, in-house lawyers no longer simply consider whether something is legal, but whether it is legal, strategic and right.

A new special report, ‘The Future Boardroom: Business strategy powered by legal, examines the evolution of the role of General Counsels (GCs) and legal departments. The special report focuses on what it means for in-house lawyers to take on an enhanced role that involves being a leader not only in the legal function, but in business, strategy and governance, and looks at how the effective deployment of technology can support engagement of legal across the whole business.


The role of the GC is not only about being a great lawyer—protecting the company and managing risk are merely prerequisites for the role. Disruptions in the legal profession and business at large means that in-house legal departments must leverage the 360-degree visibility of their organisation to act as business partners, help drive strategic goals and provide leadership in guiding the conscience and culture of the business.

These role aspects matter to the in-house legal team because, often times, disruption brings increased regulation and risks, but also opportunities. Businesses have seen governments react to COVID-19 with an array of new rules, regulations and laws that could impact a number of areas, from cashflow management and cost reduction, to supply chain management, and employment and tax. The United Kingdom’s exit from, and negotiations on the future relationship with, the European Union presents uncertainty as to the endgame, but certainty of some change, which will require a flexible approach from business. A legal department that can successfully navigate these changes will be key to guiding their organisation into the future.

Added to this are governance issues—such as those arising out of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, and growing concerns around the climate crisis—that have been raised in priority on the boardroom agenda in 2020. Such issues speak to the strategic vision of an organisation and bring to light the vital role of the law department, not only in safeguarding their businesses’ reputation through good governance, but also in helping to lead the way in driving cultural change.

In responding to business and social and environmental changes, GCs have a duty to question and test internal decision-making in order to ensure that there is legal integrity running through organisational decisions. Our special report highlights the following ways in which the GC and the legal department can do this:

  • stay at the forefront of regulatory changes in multiple jurisdictions;
  • manage the risks to which the business is exposed;
  • set strategic priorities in business transformation; and,
  • champion technology in the legal department that frees up lawyers to work on more complex tasks.

Doing more with less

Going in to 2020, legal department priorities were centred around driving efficiency, being more effective, and safeguarding their organisation. Research from Acritas, part of Thomson Reuters, indicates that, since the outbreak of COVID-19, those priorities largely remain the same. The challenge of tackling those priorities, however, is compounded, not only by the disruptions mentioned above, but by the need to continually do more with less.

While cost control is a principal driver of efficiency, innovation plays an increasingly important role for in-house legal teams. European legal departments are recognising the benefits of leveraging technology to modernise their teams and drive efficiency, and data shows that European legal spending on technology is currently in line with the global average. Top-level buy-in for investment in legal technology is increasingly forthcoming, and technology is coming down in cost, meaning in-house teams are better able to experiment with the benefits that technology can bring.

Those that have innovated by investing in legal tech are best positioned to defend their roles as high-value advisors to their organisation by automating more routine work in order to focus resource on value-adding activities.

Balancing act

Adopting legal technology requires a balancing act: innovative solutions are just one aspect in securing and shaping the future of your organisation’s legal department. Harnessing the talent of your organisation’s people is just as crucial. Automation and other new technologies may supplement and even replace human effort, but they do not replace human talent. Agustin Sanchez, Senior Proposition Strategy Manager—Legal and Compliance, Thomson Reuters, notes that “managing talent has to be a top priority for the GC, ensuring members of the legal department are constantly upskilling to work more efficiently and are able to step back from repetition and drudgery to offer problem-solving and high-level strategic thinking”.

As we approach 2021, the key challenge for in-house legal teams is to anticipate how disruption will present obstructions and opportunities for their organisation. To do this, GCs and corporate legal departments will need to utilise their talents and adopt new technologies in order to position themselves as strategic business partners, leaders, diplomats and educators in an organisation that views legal integrity as a core value rather than simply rules to be obeyed.

Download your copy of ‘The Future Boardroom: Business strategy powered by legal’.

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