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GCs ‘no longer the department of no’

Three experts have provided insight into the changing role of general counsel, including how the function of a legal team has become less about saying “no” and more about becoming an integrated part of each business’ core operations.

user iconEmma Musgrave 12 November 2019 Corporate Counsel
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At this year’s Relativity Fest, hosted in Chicago, Illinois, attendees were treated to a session on The Business of Law 2020 by speakers David Horrigan, discovery counsel and legal education director at Relativity; Jessica Nolan, senior vice president and general counsel at PLZ Aeroscience; and Ari Kaplan, principal at Ari Kaplan Advisors.

Leveraging data collected by the FTI-Relativity General Counsel Survey, the trio noted a key trend playing out now and one that will continue in 2020 is the notion that general counsel are “no longer the department of ‘no’”.

“Historically, the role of general counsel was seen as an impediment, rather than a business partner. That’s where you went to get told ‘no’. We saw that happening over and over again,” Mr Horrigan said.


“A legal team can’t be a department of no anymore, Ms Nolan added.

My job is to say ‘yes’ and ‘how?’ I need to be a business partner with my CEO and with my head of sales and to do that I need to support their efforts to grow revenue and increase margins.

“When they come to me with an idea of how we’re going to do that, my job is to say ‘yes, we are going to do that’ and understand what the end goal is, whats the objective, whats their suggestion for how we get there and is there a different way to get there that would impose less risk on the company. I see that as a big up-push in what the GC’s job is. I have to be the department of ‘yes.

Ms Nolan admitted that while being more of a business partner, rather than a legal adviser, isn’t being taught prior to people moving in-house, it’s something that is quickly made apparent upon joining an organisation.

“As for moving in-house and how it’s different, it’s the role as a business partner that law firms and law schools can’t prepare you for. They don’t prepare you for it; they probably think that the client can do it for you,” she said.

Mr Kaplan offered a similar sentiment, noting that in the US at least, legal teams are much more embedded into a business’ core operations than they were in years past.

“There were some very practical points that people made [in the survey, when talking about general counsel no longer being the department of no],” Mr Kaplan said.

“One [respondent] mentioned embedding lawyers into the business units, rather than the business units having a trusted legal adviser that just kind of lives there.

“Rather than having to knock on the door and have this legal question that they’d say no to and then you’d leave, it’s now much more this idea of a deep integration. It’s about this idea of finding a way to solve problems.

“[For the GCs surveyed] there was a common trend about not only, ‘How do we solve problems?’ but also, ‘How can we create more value out of the problems that we’re solving?’”


*If you know a leading GC who deserves recognition, nominate them for the Lawyers Weekly Corporate Counsel Awards here

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