The role of in-house legal departments has evolved over the last decade. Legal teams are a vital component of the business function, and are required to be decisive and offer guidance on a plethora of matters.
From traditional role aspects of supporting internal stakeholders and managing business risk, to the more recent increase of general counsels (GC) advising on corporate strategy—the in-house legal operation has become more influential.
External factors, including an increasingly unpredictable business climate and global political volatility, have also contributed in spurring on a gradual change in the roles and responsibilities for many legal departments, and further validated their importance.
Among the many challenges in-house legal teams currently face, the risk control function has become a more crucial part in the services they provide. According to a recent report, Trends in UK Risk & Compliance, published by Thomson Reuters, there has been a “step-change” in risk and compliance on the corporate agenda in recent years, and 81 percent of the research’s survey respondents—which included risk and compliance or legal professionals—indicated that they have a dedicated risk and compliance function in place to assess the organisation’s risk appetite.
The report concluded there is a general desire to drive consistency across the corporate entity, and ensure there is a coordinated approach to managing risk and compliance. However, in addition, it found that cyber security, data protection, and money laundering were considered the most importance risks amongst the respondents, while political and regulatory factors were also deemed to be potential threats.
Motivated by the need to be prepared for challenges on the horizon—regulatory, political or, responding to the evolving business environment—it is imperative that organisations are proactive in building legal teams equipped for the future.
Consumer goods giant Unilever has been doing just that, according to James Berkeley, General Counsel, Beauty and Personal Care Division, IP, Marketing, Media and E-commerce. The organisation recently formed its ‘Legal Excellence Centre’ to place a specific focus on ensuring it is fit for the future from an in-house legal team perspective owing to the rapid change in business, which will inevitably trigger a transformation in the work legal teams provide and the way it is delivered.
“I believe the fundamental challenge is the exponential pace of change in business, in material part due to the rapidity of the technological advances, and these changes force fundamental questions around both the work that our legal teams do and the way in which we work”, says Berkeley. “There is a significant re-set of the skills and the approach required, as the portfolio of expertise within what would be considered part of the normal range of a rounded GC, has branched into areas not existing a decade ago. This combination of simultaneous breadth and depth, and simply the heightened expectation of the speed with which the legal team should advise across this range, is the major challenge”.
To meet the expanded demand expected of in-house legal teams, a broad skillset is required, as well as acknowledging and adapting to the way the organisation is seeking to conduct its operation. Unilever has identified several key areas it believes the next generation of in-house lawyers will need to develop.
“Firstly around ‘New models’; our businesses are looking at dramatically different ways of conducting business, different modes of marketing, different channels for sale. Areas that once would have been the exclusive preserve of in-house manufacturing and development, so a skillset in efficient partnerships is going to be needed. The fundamentals of the law have of course not changed, but finding solutions to classic risk and ownership positions in a new age of partnerships, speed and open innovation presents a fresh challenge for legal teams”, says Berkeley.
Though, he adds that having an understanding and awareness of digital and data is also an important attribute required for the next generation of lawyers. “Every business is being disrupted by the technological shifts, and to be able to advise effectively, while taking advantage of the huge opportunities, requires a new level of understanding of data, of data flows and the use within the business”, says Berkeley. “There are new areas around data ethics and responsibility that the lawyers of tomorrow will need master to manage some of the emerging technologies of today, and ensure that we preserve citizens’ trust in business”.
Berkeley goes on to add that the privacy aspect of data management, which is inextricably linked to the digital priority, is another area that “all legal teams will need to be skilled in, as requirements extend to all geographies, both to ensure compliance, but also to fulfil the core trust perspective”.
However, the process of establishing the required profile of a robust, future-proof legal team is one thing, but nurturing the development of those skills is another. In building the legal team of the future, organisations need rich learning cultures, with opportunities, training and diverse career paths, which reflect the changing business landscape.
“In large organisations such as Unilever, the knowledge and experience may well be somewhere, but not everywhere, and the key is leveraging the centres of expertise”, says Berkeley. “We have recently established a Legal Excellence Centre to approach this challenge of expanding expertise, and some of the areas around learning and development. We have excellence hubs, covering areas such as the New Models, Digital and Data and Privacy, where we second talent from markets into the hub on a rotational basis, usually for six months, ensuring a deep immersion in the area that can be seeded back into the relevant market and creating the global connectivity.
“We believe that if companies can find ways to harness the thirst for new experience, in challenging new scope areas, and for the capability development to be recognised in non-linear career progression then the next generation of lawyers will be well placed to thrive in this uncertain yet exciting environment,” says Berkeley.