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Future of Legal
Legal Transformation

In-house legal: the time for change is now

Are we going to pretend, prevaricate or posture or are we actually going to do something meaningful?

Adrian Thurston
April 14, 2022

The time is now!

As we begin another year, and no doubt contemplate changes we intend to make (both personally and at work), Lustrum thought it timely to set a challenge to the Legal community. Are we going to pretend, prevaricate or posture or are we actually going to do something meaningful?

It sounds trite to say that the 2020s have already been marked by volatility and epoch-making events.  

We continue to live through a pandemic that serves to remind humanity (or sadly, perhaps the rich world) of its awful vulnerabilities in the face of microbial threats. The effects of a changing climate are ever more obvious and extreme. Geopolitically, we are experiencing a period of superpower rivalry across multiple arenas, regions and (even) technologies. The digitisation of many aspects of our lives marches on, with huge ethical, never mind legal, implications.

And yet, the Legal world seems strangely untouched – waiting, indeed hoping, for the return of ‘normality’. Lawyers may be wearing different clothes and working in different locations but how much have our methods moved on? Indeed, do we appreciate the scale of the external change enough to understand that the status quo cannot be maintained?

You will have gathered by now that we at Lustrum are passionate about the case for a new approach. Let’s put it another way: there isn’t an alternative.  

And make no mistake, we’re not just thinking about the dangers of an ever-altering world. There are historic opportunities for business and individuals to seize.

We’re off to see the Wizard

It often feels to us that some General Counsel share many characteristics of Frank L. Baum’s fabled Wizard; certainly, an air of mystery (as to how they and their teams work) and other worldliness (approach and communication style).

The reality is that, despite the obvious hard work and intelligence on display, the responsibilities of Legal have evolved to a point where there needs to be more “tell” and less “show”. Boards and Executive Teams should be asking their lawyers to explain their capability to meet the myriad complexities of today’s business. 

It’s clear to us that Legal’s scope has expanded massively in the last 20 years. Indeed, it is very far removed now from what many of us were taught at Law School and practised in Law Firms. Sure, much of the role of the in house lawyer is about applying legal principles but it’s far more than that. Companies often also look to their General Counsel to lead on things like governance, compliance and risk. Here, you don’t just need to know the rules, you have to understand how to build them into everyday corporate life. Developing practical systems and processes may rarely be a counsel of perfection but it is crucial to an organisation’s well-being (and sometimes, its very existence!).

The challenge for Legal leaders is to understand how best to deploy the resources (and time) given to them on the most important areas and manage the rest effectively. A blinding glimpse of the obvious? Perhaps. Yet, how many departments are truly clear on their real priorities – not just the issue of today – and where they should be focusing their time to make the most valuable contribution? How many teams use technology – at any level – and look for innovative ways to deal with routine work?

And the answer cannot be to hide what you do behind a screen, hoping that your methods and departmental substance will never be questioned. After all, there’s always a Dorothy to burst your bubble….

Legal - the new reality

1.    1990s- contract review, disputes, property, employment (Basic)

2.    2000s- growing compliance (esp. DP, Competition), more governance, risk and insurance (v2.0)

3.    2010s - complex compliance(e.g ABAC, trade, GDPR), increased governance (beyond listed), emerging ESG (Advanced)

4.    2020s - ESG, multi-layered regulatory systems, geopolitical uncertainty, future focus (Complex)

(Danger!) Slow Horses

The media is never short of reports of corporate scandals, huge fines and executive misdeeds. As we’ve said before, serious questions will be asked of the lawyers in or advising the organisations involved – even if, in fact, their ability to prevent things going wrong was limited.

Worse still, there are instances where the lawyers themselves face personal peril. (As a case in point, the continuing investigations into thePost Office Horizon scandal seem likely to examine the role of lawyers). Slowly but surely the risks for individuals are extending beyond damage to their career prospects – to the realms of professional and, even, criminal sanctions.

Keeping your head down and signing on for another year of corporate benefits may be a strategy for some GCs but it doesn’t seem to us to be a winning one or, indeed, a safe one (for them or their people)!

Again, and if only out of a sense of self-preservation, things cannot continue as they are. We’ve no wish to remind anyone of the tale of boiling frog!

Greater than Gatsby

As we said at the outset, the reasons for change are not just about risks and ‘downsides’. This is a hugely exciting time for us lawyers. A time when those who step up can truly create history.

Like the 1920s (comparisons have abounded), which also began with a deadly disease sweeping through many parts of the world, we are witnessing huge invention and the dawn of new possibilities. From the development of vaccines at incredible speed to the growing emergence of AI and quantum computing.

All will require the support of the brightest and best legal minds. Many will require us to balance the advantages of new technologies with their impact on humanity (machines do not yet possess souls).

Although the parallel with the Roaring Twenties can be overdone – for example, the UK’s economy was more staccato than jazz – it also overlooks one vital difference.  The Green Industrial Revolution. 

Without downplaying the advances involved in moving to mass production, they surely pale beside the demands of decarbonising the planet. As we are regularly reminded, many of the solutions we are likely to need (clean air travel, as just one), do not exist at present. In many ways, the future of the human race relies on our ability to innovate and adapt.

And if that wasn’t reason enough – how much more of a “purpose” do we want? – the scale of the investment being made by governments and business alike is simply staggering. Many trillions of dollars and counting (other currencies are available!).

Whilst we at Lustrum will leave it to greater minds to declare how historic these opportunities are, we can all agree that they are big and they are (so) important.

Embrace the Brave New World

We hope that our musings will cause the GC community to reconsider their resolutions for 2022. (We are consoled that a number will already be diligently delivering their own changes). Perhaps some leaders may even decide that, along with more exercise, they really do want to make a difference this year?

In our view, change cannot be delayed any longer and should be embraced. Huge global trends (such as ever-increasing regulation) and growing ethical concerns (over the role of business in society) demand a response. Indeed, they must be catalysts for change.

The span of Legal’s coverage means it must evolve from what might have been ‘good enough’ at the start of the millennium. Those of us who have stopped to consider other areas of business have seen their transformation. We must move forward too – it’s simply unacceptable to be analogue in a digital age.

We at Lustrum are optimists at heart. We believe that, whether from healthcare to the environment (and almost every other sector along the way), the world would benefit from the introduction of new, humanity-enhancing, technology. Whatever other less kind commentators may say, we know that lawyers have a vital role to play in realising these global changes. To make the impact society needs them to, they must have first transformed themselves.

This is the moment for leaders to step up: to do wonderful things for all of us, to provide incredible opportunities for their talented teams and to define their own careers.

So, whether from fear (of the curtain being brought down) or excitement (the chance to shape the future), it’s time for the lawyers to rise. Not in another 12 months, not in five years, now!

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