What surprised in-house lawyers this year?
Following a turbulent year for the legal services marketplace, Lawyers Weekly spoke with numerous corporate counsel about what was most surprising about the experience of in-house legal teams in 2022.
Inclusion in decision making
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According to harrison.ai general counsel Jennifer Mulheron, the most surprising thing about the last 12 months has been the willingness of the business to include the legal team in commercial and strategic decision making.
“The legal function can bring a unique perspective to such discussions — we’re not ‘in the trenches’, building products or in ops, yet have a deep understanding of every aspect of the business,” she opined.
“If we resist the temptation to focus only on risks, then we can be a real asset for the business and help guide better decision making.”
Winc group general counsel Troy Swan agreed, noting that corporate counsel have “increasingly” become the primary trusted advisers.
“During these times of rapid change and uncertainty, while traditional workflows have remained steady or increased, bespoke, novel or unique factual situations have become more common and require a higher degree of legal sophistication and strategy to address,” he outlined.
“These unique and often unscripted scenarios require strong judgement and decision-making abilities, and lawyers, and especially lawyers with a strong commercial acumen and aptitude, have become the go-to people and problem solvers for organisations adapting to change and navigating uncertainty.”
Tech and ops adoption
Megaport senior legal counsel Mel Scott said that she has been both excited and surprised by the rate of adoption of legal technologies and operations by in-house legal teams.
“Where once full stack contract lifecycle management (CLM) may have been a nice to have or ‘we’ll get to it next financial year’, it is now a non-negotiable for high-performing teams,” she proclaimed.
“Beyond CLM, I have been impressed by how many sophisticated vendors are now present in this space, offering everything from AI contract review to brilliant chat bots connecting to other corporate systems like Slack.”
Scouting through the options and implementing new tech, Ms Scott mused, has “become a full-time job altogether, and the role of legal operations has certainly become even more necessary in 2022”.
Nature and demand of legal work
Talented lawyers, Mr Swan added, are increasingly mobile and have never been in more demand.
“They chose who they want to work for and which organisations best align with their personal views. Positive working arrangements such as high compensation levels, workplace flexibility and opportunities to learn or advance are just the norm and expected,” he detailed.
“Talented lawyers are now increasingly looking for opportunities to not only contribute to their organisation’s success, but to also be part of something larger that often has a social utility or benefit.
“They want to do meaningful work that makes a difference, and this view has been particularly exacerbated during the pandemic.”
Focus on taboo topics
For DroneShield general counsel Katherine Stapels, the most surprising thing in 2022 has been the increased focus on taboo topics for the industry, such as mental health, bullying and harassment in the workplace, and work flexibility.
“There is a longstanding metaphor used in the legal industry that lawyers are robots (or like robots). That metaphor is applied not only to workload, but also to ethics and resilience in certain environments,” she mused.
“The air time given to the issues not only humanises the profession, but encourages others to have the courage to share their experience.”
Reflecting on what has been learned from this unexpected development, Ms Stapels said that, hopefully, “more lawyers in the profession have the courage to be their authentic self, set better boundaries, and feel more comfortable seeking flexibility at work”.
Rise of ESG
Elsewhere, Mr Swan identified the “rise and rise” of environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations as a clear trend for the year that was.
“While lawyers have long been the stewards of many of our ESG commitments and obligations, the past year has reinforced the importance of ESG to business, shareholders and employees,” he said.
“Many leading ESG programs which may have once been considered innovative or best in class, are now becoming the minimum expectations in the investing and corporate communities that are seeking better corporate governance commitments and clearly defined social licences to operate.”