Biggest lessons for GCs from 2022
From activism to strategic thinking, increased cost discipline to people management, the past year offered bountiful learning opportunities for law department leaders, which they can and must heed in the new year.
Be a builder, not an adviser
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Harrison.ai general counsel Jennifer Mulheron has emerged from the last 12 months with the need for new and improved thinking on her mind.
“My key learning from 2022 is that great value can be unlocked by thinking and operating more as a ‘builder’ than an advisor,” she explained.
“In building a house, the builder plans thoughtfully and works intentionally, with clear strategic objectives. In building a company, adopting this perspective enables counsel to prioritise moving fast over simply reacting fast.”
A ‘clear and present danger’ to corporations
Activism, across a number of areas, became a “clear and present danger for corporations” in 2022, Baker Hughes head counsel Barry Cameron submitted.
“First of all, further evidence of the growth of litigation funding as a method by which disputes can be raised by litigants who might otherwise be denied access to justice. Second, the rise of ESG as not just a consideration in decision-making, but a priority to ignore at your peril. Last, the growing banking/PE, shareholder and stakeholder activism on climate change,” he listed.
The uptick in all of these areas, Mr Cameron suggested, will combine to create “fertile ground” for litigators in the coming years.
“To combat this threat will mean conducting periodic and ongoing reviews of our decision-making processes, internal and external stakeholder engagement and communications strategy in 2023 to ensure they are as robust as possible and that we not only do what is legally required but do what is right in all the circumstances,” he advised.
Increased cost discipline
The funding and economic climate of 2022, JobAdder general counsel Simone Vrabac pointed out, forced increased cost discipline in many industries — particularly in the tech sector.
“Legal functions in affected industries were not immune from these pressures,” she noted.
“We had to learn how to maintain the same high standard of legal support for the business in the face of rising external costs and increased internal scrutiny on legal budgets.”
For Accenture strategic partnerships global legal lead Annie Haggar, the threats surrounding cyber security remain the biggest and most glaring teachable moments coming out of 2022.
“In the wake of the two biggest domestic cyber attacks in Australia’s history, every business, and therefore every in-house lawyer, must assess whether they are ready for when, not if, they are the subject of a security breach,” she said.
“We have, in previous years, seen local impact from big overseas attacks — but now, we have seen the impact of attacks on Australian household brands — and it’s not pretty.
“Australian consumers are now expecting businesses to step up their security game and protect their data, or they will take their business elsewhere.”
This is a huge challenge for in-house counsel, Ms Haggar continued, as many have no cyber security legal expertise — nor have they needed to up until recently.
“However, this year, every in-house team needs to think about how they are going to get cyber security expertise into their team, and where they need to focus their attention and triage what needs to be done,” she said.
Mr Cameron also identified this as a “number one concern” for most in-house legal functions.
Vigilance, he said, “is required everywhere, every day, through education and sharing knowledge of the risks and how to identify them”.
Winc group general counsel Troy Swan said that the basics of running and supporting a legal team and company remain the same. It’s all about the people, he argued.
“The fight for talented lawyers with a commercial skill set, who can balance the competing business needs of an organisation while also managing risk, has never been more pronounced,” he said.
“In the labour and talent shortage of 2022, that is now providing wonderful new opportunities for lawyers, and where people have undergone several years of uncertainty and as a result are now more open to these new opportunities, it reinforces that what keeps people and teams together is ultimately people. Successful organisations and growing businesses know that retaining smart people and smart lawyers and their learned organisation IP is a crucial ingredient to organisational resilience and success.”
During times of change, Mr Swan went on, that nearly always represents commercial opportunities, having a strong, capable and commercially oriented legal team can be the difference between success, growth and the desired initiative execution and failure.
“Organisations that have supported their people and teams during the pandemic years are now seeing that loyalty and support being repaid in what will be one of the biggest productivity increases those organisations will see, in my opinion, in the last decade,” he mused.
“It is a timely reminder that the past year has shown that supporting your teams and people will still provide the biggest reward for your organisation and that trend will just continue in 2023.”
Unique legal and business risks
Looking back on the year that was, Sydney Fish Market general counsel Michael Guilday said that 2022 “initially looked quite promising”, but that such positivity was “quickly tempered” following news of a protracted war in Ukraine, a series of devastating NSW floods, widespread global supply chain uncertainties, volatile energy and fuel prices, and alarming rises in inflation.
From his organisation’s perspective, he explained, such developments have presented a number of unique legal and business risks, including and especially resourcing, supply chain resilience, digital transformation and ESG.
“We are continually assessing whether existing resources and capabilities will be adequate to meet the challenges posed by the new normal. We are also focused on the need to offer a compelling employee value proposition to retain key people,” Mr Guilday said.
“We need to do more to increase the robustness of our supply chain, for example, by diversifying supply and advocating for appropriate government intervention in circumstances in which ongoing viability of key stakeholders may be compromised, including procuring targeted support and facilitating restructurings.”
The challenges posed by COVID-19, Mr Guilday went on, have “highlighted the need for meaningful digital transformations, not just across our business but throughout our entire industry”.
Finally, he noted, like many organisations, Sydney Fish Market relies on its social licence to trade. “We have made a conscious effort to uprate our ESG credentials, including by promoting our responsible sourcing and sustainable business practices,” Mr Guilday said.
Steps for 2023
Reflecting on what has been learned in the past year, Ms Mulheron said that such lessons must be translated into action.
She is aiming, she outlined, to “invest more time in thoughtful planning of calendars and priorities, building fundamentals often overlooked amongst the inevitable fire drills but which are value-creating in the long term, such as self-service tools, processes, and relationships, and ruthlessly eliminating distractions that don’t align or serve the company’s strategic objectives”.
Ms Vrabac offered similar sentiments, warning that the current macroeconomic climate will likely continue for a “good portion” of 2023.
Therefore, she said, her year will be centred on three primary focus areas.
“One, ruthless prioritising and being disciplined about spending my time on the most impactful things. Two, exploring how the legal team can leverage existing technologies within the business on repetitive and low-value work. And three, consistently showing the exec team how the legal function adds value and why their investment in this area is worthwhile,” she detailed.