Being more strategic is now a core competency for general counsel, even as they face huge pressures over the output of their legal team, writes Matthew Kay.
There’s a difference between strategy and tactics, two terms that are sometimes used synonymously, causing confusion. The strategy sets out how you will reach your objective. The tactics form part of this – they are the stepping stones you cross which help you reach that objective.
However you can’t have a successful strategy without tactics, or vice versa – one cannot survive without the other.
The strategy sets out the long-term plan, the purpose of each tactic, and how it will help the overall aim. Tactics that aren’t part of a strategy and not justified in how it will help the business objective, are like aimlessly reaching out in the dark, not knowing your direction and your destination. As said in the words of military strategist Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and philosopher who detailed his teachings in “The Art of War”: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
GCs today have a redefined role. They are leaders, as well as problem-solvers, and part of this is leading on strategy. I’ve discussed previously how one of the challenges facing GCs is perceptions from the wider company that the legal department should continually be doing more, at the same time as slashing their budgets.
GCs now often sit in the senior echelons of companies expected to lead on decisions for the future of the company, while making sure the in-house legal team is aligned and working towards this vision, as well as overseeing how the strategy is being implemented across the business. The role of the GC has significantly changed.
Of course, the strategy can vary business to business, and there isn’t a prescribed strategy that all companies should be following. However there are a number of tips that can be taken on from GCs across the board about how they can be more strategic.
The virtue of space and time
As mentioned previously, GCs have a number of pressures facing them which can be difficult to manage. However finding the time to draft and oversee strategy when there is the day-to-day legal work can be difficult. GCs may be concerned that their team does not have the expertise, or rather the capability to take on the workload you need to relinquish to focus on business strategy.
However, doing this is incredibly important and will give you the space, as well as perspective, and importantly time to do so. How can you utilise the team under tight budgets though when they are already squeezed? Think of it as a strategy that will help you be more strategic.
Consider training, development opportunities for your staff to help enhance their expertise and feel motivated, and importantly so you can trust and let them lead on projects in the long term. Use legaltech, if affordable where you can, to save time for the team and improve efficiency. Look into flexible working models – which have shown to be conducive to increased productivity.
To relieve a shortage of expertise, consider contract lawyers, who will be ready-made experts in the area of law you need in the period you need, being able to parachute in and being more cost-efficient to the in-house legal department.
Now you have a little time to yourself, the importance of taking a step back to reflect and do some strategic thinking should not be underestimated. Some questions you can ask yourself are: what are the current pressure points on the business and how are they preventing the business from reaching its future potential? How, as the in-house legal team, can you help futureproof the business’ product or service it offers to customers/clients? What is the business objective, and are all the departments working towards this aim, if they aren’t, how can they?
Assess the current capabilities of your talent, how will everyone’s role help contribute towards this aim and what tactics they can form in order to do so. What legal issues do you foresee down the line and how can the in-house legal department prevent, mitigate or challenge these? Taking the time to “think” more strategically is very important, instead of just being reactive to the day-to-day challenges of the GC role.
Face up to adversary
Don’t ignore the uncomfortable questions as well as unfavourable opinions and reactions from fellow board members or the in-house legal departments. It’s important that any strategy you create for your internal legal team or the strategy of the business or contribute to, is watertight. Recognise the different perspectives on decisions, gather evidence and reflect.
It’s easy to be stubborn and protective over a project you’ve worked on, and much harder to accept a critical opinion. However listening to “the devil’s advocate’s” opinion in the early stages about the tactics being used as part of your strategy may help you swerve big issues you didn’t foresee down the line. See it as an opportunity and chance to ensure your strategy is watertight and works practically, rather than just being theoretical.
Being more strategic is now a core part of the GC’s role, even though they face huge pressures over the output of their legal team. However using the above tactics wisely to help you reach your strategy – of having more time to be strategic – can be incredibly useful.
Matthew Kay is the managing director of Vario from Pinsent Masons.