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- Commercial acumen has become a prime practical skill that businesses want from in-house counsels
- Taking proactive steps to engage and communicate with business unit encourages reciprocal treatment, likely placing in-house counsels in a position to influence strategic business decisions
- Contributive mindset is needed in order to present viable solutions instead of simple answers
More than legal expertise
At the ALB Hong Kong In-House Legal Summit 2018, our esteemed panelists explored the topic of “Re-Defining the Roles and Leadership Responsibilities of General Counsels: From In-House Lawyers to Strategic Business Partners”. While legal expertise is certainly integral to in-house practice, the view permeating through the entire discussion was that legal expertise is now a trait that is expected from all in-house counsels. To transcend further and become strategic business partners of the business, they must now bring practical skills and mindsets to the table, including but not limited to communication skills, relationship-building skills, and most importantly, commercial acumen.
Commercial acumen entails a thorough understanding of the company’s business model and how the law would specifically apply, but more importantly, an understanding the business’s long term strategic plans and visions. The panelists provided some advice on how in-house counsels can put their practical skills to use to become a strategic business partner.
Proactivity and encouraging engagement
The legal team is a vital organ in the business with a primary objective to facilitate the execution of business strategy and should not be perceived as a place to turn to only when problems arise. Proactively engaging different parts of the company communicates to other departments that legal is there to provide assistance, thus encouraging business units to engage more especially since some may perceive the legal team as an unapproachable higher body. An example of how this can be achieved is by working closely with the departments that communicate directly with regulators and assisting them in building a good relationship with regulators.
Alluding back to the title of the panel discussion, our panelists encouraged in-house counsels to proactively seek out new roles and responsibilities beyond their scope of work. By simply engaging and getting involved more, in-house counsels will not only gain a better understanding of different aspects of the business, but also trust and respect from the business unit, as it shows that they are willing to step outside their comfort zone to help achieve their shared business objectives. With this trust and respect, business units are more likely to get in-house counsels involved in making business decisions, which puts them in a position to shape long term business strategy and convince others of the importance of legal and compliance instead of taking a reactive approach and wait for the business unit to approach them for advice.
Facilitate, not hamper
When approached by business units with a legal query, another point to take home from the panel discussion is that in-house counsels are encouraged to advise with a contributive mindset and a goal to present solutions that facilitate business objectives. Therefore, in-house counsels should refrain from simply reiterating what laws and regulations are restricting the business unit from carrying out certain actions. If certain laws and regulations restrict a course of action from being taken, a strategic business partner would provide alternative solutions if possible, instead of reiterating what the law is not allowing them to do. With this contributive mindset, the panelists further suggested that their decision to block certain actions would be respected and met with less resistance if exercised more sparingly.
In addition, the method through which legal advice is framed is crucial to facilitating business since colleagues outside of the legal team may not share the same legal knowledge as in-house counsels. Therefore, they are encouraged to be as succinct as possible and not be caught up in the intricacies of the law when giving legal advice. In providing such solutions, the relationship can be strengthened by providing examples that illustrate how the law affects the business pragmatically to ensure that the business unit fully understands what is being said. This ensures that personnel with no legal background understand the advice without being burdened with details that are not necessary to carrying out their functions.
Having a contributive mindset and being able to communicate legal advice succinctly demonstrates that the in-house counsel has considered the business’s long-term strategy and understands what the business is about, as opposed to simply providing an answer to a legal query, in turn building confidence in the business unit to engage the legal team more actively in future matters.