The role of General Counsel (GC) has undergone a profound expansion in scope, as business leaders recognise that their long-term success is dependent on much more than profit alone. Organisations must proactively address a wide array of compliance, environmental, and social concerns. This presents a significant opportunity for a General Counsel (GC) to add value by acting as the ‘conscience’ of the business, guiding it towards ethical decisions and responsible practices.
Partners within the Board Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, Stuart Mason and Louise Chaplin, met with a group of GCs to delve into the evolving nature of their roles. Here are the key takeaways from their discussion:
The role of General Counsel is rapidly increasing in scale and complexity
At Eton Bridge Partners, we are seeing a trend for the GC and Company Secretary roles to be combined. This was echoed by the experience of the GCs who all agreed that their role had evolved dramatically as the board has shifted their focus from purely profit to looking at the multiple issues that can create or destroy value.
‘The board want somebody other than finance to give them the risk, health and safety and ESG perspectives; they appreciate having an alternative advisor who has a different lens,’ noted one of the participants.
Not surprisingly, the GC workload has increased exponentially as a result. ‘The more you can do, the more you are asked to do,’ commented one guest, adding that given the scale and speed of decision making, good judgement rather than subject expertise can be one of the most important skills for GCs.
Our participants explained the use of technology and effective prioritisation as a way to mitigate the increasing workload. On the plus side, the variety of the work was seen as, ‘one of the best things about the role’; providing an opportunity to get involved in different areas and to keep learning. The broadening of the role beyond ‘textbook lawyer’ has brought challenges, but also great opportunity to be at the heart of corporate strategy and develop transferable leadership skills. Our guests all said that GCs must work on ‘marketing themselves’, advocating the value they bring to the C-suite and Board.
ESG strategy – how involved is General Counsel?
One word cropped up repeatedly in our debate on the GC’s role in managing ESG responsibilities, and that word was ‘challenge.’ Whilst organisations may look for quick wins when it comes to meeting their commitments, it was felt that the GC’s role is to challenge the business and ask whether the ESG strategy is science-based, rigorously measured and the right approach to add value in the long-term.
‘Large investors need reassurance,’ remarked one GC. Another noted that getting ESG right was central to retaining and recruiting top talent.
The reputational risk from being accused of ‘green-washing’ is damaging both to shareholder value and the organisation’s kudos as an employer. The GC has a key role to play, both by virtue of their natural fact-checking bias, as well as being the moral compass of the organisation.
Artificial Intelligence (AI); efficiency gain or potential risk?
The GCs in the room agreed that the use of technology in the profession has improved efficiency in ways such as raising legal tickets or facilitating self-serve applications. But on AI, the mood was notably cautious.
‘The use of AI to generate content is risky from an intellectual property perspective,’ remarked one GC. Another referenced a recent case in the US where a lawyer was challenged for using AI generated content that was found to be incorrect. ‘When I’m speaking to law firms, I want to know how much AI they are using and what checks are in place.’ said one guest.
The point was made that some lawyers may rely too heavily on AI, rather than developing the drafting skills that come with personally wading through reams of information. This could leave those individuals lacking the knowledge to answer questions from stakeholders in the longer-term.
Future opportunities and challenges for General Counsel
The challenge of attracting and retaining talent was a common thread. One GC noted that the new generation of lawyers want to work in a different way and are seeking a better work-life balance. ‘Our profession needs to think about that – in the past there was a mentality that you have to bill 90 hours a week to make partner; new recruits want more balance.’ Mental health challenges are becoming increasingly pertinent and there is a need to upskill managers and leaders to provide the right support.
Taking a macro perspective, uncertain economic conditions present the prospect of being asked to, ‘do more with less’ amidst tighter financial constraints.
The uncertain geopolitical situation is also a risk with elections looming in the US, the ongoing war in Ukraine continuing to create economic and political tension, and the more hostile rhetoric between China and the West leading to increased tariffs and sanctions.
Against this turbulent backdrop, the role of General Counsel is progressively perceived as that of a ‘future-seeker,’ aiming to stay ahead of unfolding events and equipping the business to tackle potential make-or-break challenges. The GC is the ethical heart of the organisation at a time when corporate ethics are under huge scrutiny; as a result, their workload has grown, and so have the prospects for an ambitious General Counsel.
We would like to extend our thanks to all those who took part in a thought-provoking and insightful discussion. Eton Bridge Partners have a strong track record of working with senior leadership teams to find the best legal, risk and compliance talent in the market.
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