Lesley Wan gave the keynote address of day one of the conference, on how in-house counsel can unleash their strategic potential. She outlines a number of trailblazing initiatives she has delivered over her career to inspire you to step out of your comfort zone.
With increased pressures on management to ensure systems and processes are operating at maximum efficiency and are truly cost-effective, it is more imperative than ever for general counsel (GC) to take proactive steps to align their legal model to complement their business function, and to advise on their organisation’s strategic objectives and direction.
But how can GC demonstrate this tangible value-add to the business? Now is a good time for in-house counsel to reflect on what they can do outside of giving legal advice to the business and unleashing their organisational, strategic and creative skills.
In this article, I share some of the initiatives I have created and led on, in the hope of inspiring you to step outside of your comfort zone. By thinking more creatively, I hope it will empower you to lead by example and encourage the people around you to do the same.
I believe that it is vitally important for us to focus on our managerial skills, to inspire our legal teams – the lawyers of the future – and help them realise their potential. We should focus on helping others to develop into their next role, whether that be an internal promotion or their first GC position.
I firmly believe that we must think of ourselves as strategic stakeholders, not just lawyers
In my experience, CEOs no longer want legal teams to just give legal advice. They want to fully utilise all members of their executive team, including the GC, and task them with different strategic responsibilities. An effective CEO plays a supervisory and strategic leadership role in the organisation: it is the role of the executive team to help the CEO deliver their vision and take on more of the workload. So, it is important to demonstrate that you have led large-scale initiatives successfully (inside and outside of work), as this will impress on your peers that you too are capable of leading strategic business initiatives.
We use these words a lot: ‘empowering the GC’, ‘adding value’, ‘stepping into leadership’. But how do you actually do it? Well, this is what I did.
Problem: isolation and silos leading to inefficiencies and lack of creativity. Greater collaboration and co-creation throughout industries needed.
Solution one: Real Estate Finance In-House Counsel Forum (2009)
Before 2008, no forum existed for in-house property lawyers working in financial institutions to collaborate, build strong networks, horizon-scan, share problems and discuss potential solutions. I believed that, as a group, we could bring about positive change by ensuring that our organisations had a robust legal and commercial infrastructure in place, and equipping our property bankers with the right tools, skill sets and knowledge to undertake sound property lending in the UK market. By working together, we could enable our organisations to better manage the risks associated with fluctuations in the property market.
I created a forum for in-house lawyers to do just that. By creating something so simple, we were able to collectively influence the wider property profession to listen to our views and ensure that any concerns we raised about property lending were taken seriously by our businesses.
Solution two: Skaicre (2018)
A common frustration for in-house counsel is to be bombarded regularly with industry updates from third-party service providers. To reduce the deluge, I have developed a dynamic ‘knowledge portal’ called Skaicre for the wider UK commercial property market that extended beyond the legal profession.
I want to enable property colleagues to easily access a system which provides updates in market knowledge and law, all in one place, and showcases relevant industry events with renowned speakers. The platform also features interviews with leading and upcoming property lawyers by the distinguished Dr Catherine McGregor, and business colleagues sharing their insights and expertise. The site is due to launch in September 2018.
Problem: Inefficiency in documentation causing drain on time and resources in property industry.
Solution: Loan Market Association real estate finance templates (2010)
Following the financial recession in 2008, I championed the development of a new real estate investment facility agreement, with a view to creating a framework of standardised property documents for UK borrowers and lenders, reducing the time for negotiation, more effectively managing legal risks and minimising legal costs. This had not been attempted before in the UK. The proposal was endorsed by the Loan Market Association and its templates have set new standards of best practice for the UK property industry, helping to build confidence and encouraging foreign investment in the UK market.
This was a career-changing initiative. It raised my profile across the legal and property industry and reinforced the market’s perception that Lloyds Banking Group (my previous employer) was the leading property bank in the UK.
Problem: The war for talent is increasingly competitive. Companies need diverse talent to appeal to diverse markets and be truly innovative and competitive. Companies also need to ensure they are not losing diverse talent through lack of support.
Solution: Breakthrough mentoring (2012)
I created a mentoring programme at Lloyds Bank to focus on the development, retention and progression of women in the organisation. We wanted to support our female colleagues! This was the first time that a lawyer was invited to lead a significant role normally reserved for business leaders. It was an amazing opportunity that enabled me to continue developing my leadership skills, creativity and build a truly innovative programme, which included events, newsletters, nationwide presentations etc.
Within a few years, my talented team had built the programme to 15,500 members across the UK. In 2015, we were ranked the number one women’s network in the world by the Economist’s Global Diversity List.
As a result of all of these initiatives, many of which enjoyed a high profile both internally and externally, I built a huge amount of trust and confidence amongst my peers, senior management and across the wider legal profession. I firmly believe that we must think of ourselves as strategic stakeholders, not just lawyers.
CEOs no longer want legal teams to just give legal advice
In common with other executives, the model is now about the ‘T-shaped individual’: having a core expertise, but being able to show broader related expertise outside of our core competencies. The challenge for us as in-house counsel is not only to develop lateral skills, but also to be able to demonstrate how we add value to our day jobs.
In these initiatives, I was supported by team members who helped me immeasurably. We all know that career progression for in-house lawyers is not always logical or lateral. We developed additional skills and contacts that allowed us to build the blocks of our individual career paths in many different ways. But the message remained the same: we are team players who understand key drivers for business .
Lesley Wan is GC at FBN Bank (UK).