What in-house lawyers must be on top of right now
Implementing an efficiency framework and a “more robust engagement policy” has helped the KWM legal department identify and manage upcoming risks and trends, according to a senior in-house lawyer at the global firm.
Stacy Ford is the head of legal in the office of the general counsel at BigLaw firm King & Wood Mallesons. Speaking recently on the Corporate Counsel Show, he discussed emerging trends for in-house counsel in Australia, as well as his day-to-day as a GC within a private practice.
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Mr Ford started out in private practice before being picked up by a Magic Circle firm in London to be their legal counsel — a role he now holds for KWM.
“I’m responsible for providing strictly the legal and regulatory advice to the firm, whereas the general counsel role probably has a bit of a broader spectrum of responsibility in the types of advice that a chief provides to the board and the executive of the firm,” he said.
In terms of the trends Mr Ford is currently seeing in the legal market, he said there are two key things that come to mind.
“What I’ve been seeing not only in the space of providing advice to the firm but also, seeing what our clients are looking for when they’re engaging our firm to provide them with advice too. So the two would be, and I think the first one is ESG, and ESG is probably already an established part of business practice now,” he added.
“It could have probably been seen as a trend up until recently, but I think it’s fairly well established. Then the second one is cyber security, particularly data protection and issues around privacy law as well.”
ESG has gained a lot of momentum over recent years, which Mr Ford said was driven by a number of forces.
“The ESG space is quite broad. It does cover quite a number of areas, but obviously, there [are] regulatory compliance requirements there. But the other forces that I’m seeing in terms of external are client requirements and also, for, let’s say, normal firms or other organisations, investor requirements as well.
“So, if I look at the firm’s clients and we act for obviously some quite large clients, they’re embracing ESG and they’re setting ESG commitments that they have to see through and stand over. In turn, they want their suppliers, whether it’s a supply of legal services or whatever suppliers they have, they want those suppliers to also have an ESG presence and to be seen as responsible corporate citizens as well,” he explained.
“I think that that’s a real driving force, particularly within the profession or with law firms at the moment. They need to keep pace with what clients are doing in the ESG space. Then, as I said, probably lesser for law firms, but I’m sure with other legal counsel listening in other industries, investors are also looking at whether organisations have ESG measures in place.”
As a global law firm with both ESG and cyber practices, KWM is particularly well placed to identify risks within these areas and upcoming requirements.
“Obviously, given the nature of the work that we’re in as a global law firm, we have the fortunate exposure to the full spectrum of what’s going on in that space, but not only in Australia but across the globe as well. But we also aim to inform organisations of that as well.
“We release reports such as the Directions Report we released at the end of last year, which talks about the key areas that organisations probably should be moving towards focusing on. The key highlight of that was ESG last year. That’s in the practice space, coming back to the in-house counsel space at KWM or with my team giving advice, we need to be on par with what the private practitioners or what the practice teams are doing,” Mr Ford added.
“There’s certainly an expectation there, and we certainly need to be across that and inform the firm. The firm has quite a number of initiatives that it employs in that area, from considering our carbon footprint and how to reach a neutral carbon footprint within the organisation, but right through to our community impact and our pro bono space and working with community groups on that social side of ESG.”
When asked how exactly a law department like Mr Ford’s aims to manage all the emerging priorities in up-and-coming practice areas, Ms Ford said that over the past year, it’s all come down to KWM implementing an efficiencies framework.
“There’s quite a broad spectrum of areas that an in-house counsel unit needs to advise on. That’s growing as we see further regulatory changes and reforms as well, and we need to be across that. So, what I’ve been preaching to my team is really two concepts. One, when something complex is coming through, let’s go back to basics. Let’s go right back to the foundations, and let’s have a look at how we process that matter and look at the life cycle of the matter.
“Then the other part of it is, and this is really the main part, is considering strategic value matters. Where I’ve gone with that is as an in-house counsel unit, we are generalists in nature in respect to our technical skills, in respect to the broad spectrum of advice that we can provide. But if we consider it from an organisational point of view, we are a specialist resource,” he outlined.
“We are qualified lawyers, regulated legal professionals with a tonne of education and experience in law. So, because we are in that specialist space as well, we need to be focusing on those strategic value matters and looking at ways that we can either automate or create more efficient practices when dealing with low-value and low-risk matters.”
To help do this, Mr Ford recommended implementing a “more robust engagement policy” to look at how firms are engaged by their clients.
“It’s not just stopping in the hallway and giving us instructions, but [it’s that] they need to provide written instructions to us. But also, in the engagement policy outlining some steps that they can take, there [are] some really, really easy things that the internal clients can do before they come to in-house counsel. First of all, consider, is it actually a legal or regulatory matter that’s being asked here, or should it be discussed with some other unit within the organisation?” he said.
“Is there already a policy position on this? So, I think for in-house counsel generally, if you don’t already, you need to think about putting in an engagement policy, something more formalised as to how you’re engaged and that naturally will increase the efficiency and may see off some of those more low-value, low-risk matters that are probably chewing up the time that you want to direct towards strategic value matters.”
The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Stacy Ford, click below: