Lawyers Weekly, in partnership with InfoTrack, recently hosted a roundtable discussion on the role of in-house legal teams in the modern corporate environment.
Lawyers Weekly managing editor Phillip Tarrant and InfoTrack CEO John Ahern were joined by two leading in-house counsel of multinational companies: Katrina Johnson, associate general counsel and head of APAC legal at Uber, and Alex Butterworth, senior legal counsel at McDonald’s.
Both Ms Johnson and Mr Butterworth emphasised that in-house teams are responsible for delivering agile solutions for the business, rather than being the traditional ‘business prevention department’.
“We guide the business through the thicket of regulation that exists in Australia,” Mr Butterworth said.
“If we’re not able to get a development application, then that’s the end of a McDonald’s restaurant in a particular suburb. So, our job, it’s not about saying, ‘No, you're not going to be able to get that development approval’. It's going ‘How? How are we going to get that development approval?’.
“Or, on another issue, let's say a marketing issue, it's very easy to say, ‘I don't think the ACCC will like that’. But finding a way to make it happen, to alter, tweak, change the way that we're marketing our messages, or just to educate our team and make sure that they understand what they can and can't say in marketing, our job is to help them get through that massive regulation that it would be impossible for any one person to be across.”
Ms Johnson said the Uber legal team plays a similar role, providing a “solid foundation” for the business to flourish. For a disruptive business like Uber, legislative change has been a significant aspect of this role.
“When I first started at Uber, we didn't have ride-sharing regulations in Australia, and so that was a big part of what I was brought on to do, was to help work with governments on how we could actually frame this out and look at appropriate regulation,” Ms Johnson said.
“We are now in a place where regulations have passed everywhere, and now we're into that next phase of our business growth, which is working with our federal regulators, consumer protection issues, making sure that we are being very conscious of compliance with different federal laws in addition to the state laws that were very much the primary focus a couple years ago.”
However, Mr Ahern said many in-house teams struggle to innovate without access to the right tools to help them boost their efficiency.
“When I speak to in-house counsel, they generally say, ‘Look, I struggle because I don't have access to the same tools I used to when I worked in this law firm. I'm having to compete with other different business units for IT spend’,” Mr Ahern said.
“In-house counsel are well-placed to be the innovators in the industry, to get access to the latest tools. Because their roles are so broad … they're part of every decision. So they're well-placed to have access to the right tools, utilise them, and reap the benefits for the business.”
Ms Johnson said the Uber legal team is focused on implementing tech solutions to free up time for more valuable work.
“One of our lawyers, he actually has technical background as well, and so he's helping to create a chatbot right now to deal with the most common queries that we face in the business,” she said.
“He's also experimenting on a document management system that actually flags key words or trigger words for reviewing marketing copy and other communications with some advice built into it. So that if somebody in our business unit is trying to prepare some communications to go out externally, it will actually highlight some of the trigger words, such as the word ‘free’ … and give some advice around what alternative phrases they might use.
“It's to free up the legal resources, which are pretty constrained, to do the most valuable, strategic, complex work, and really just get the more routine work or repetitive, high-volume, low-value work that needs to be done, done in a smarter way.”
Listen to the full round table discussion here.
Pictured top to bottom: Katrina Johnson and Alex Butterworth