Why the current clouds of Brexit uncertainty present a unique opportunity for you

"Leading the strategic response whilst finding the edge" – the title of this year's Corporate Counsel Forum, could not be more apt in an economic and political climate turned on its head since this last gathering of leading General Counsel.

Looking at the agenda for this year's Forum, I was immediately struck by three points that stand out from the agenda:

  1. the ever increasing focus on efficient, effective and continually improving law departmental operations (I'm hopeful that we might be starting to move on from "More for less" to more meaningful measures of in house performance);
  2. the resulting continual growth in demand from GCs and from their teams to widen and deepen their knowledge and skillsto encompass wider business knowledge, process knowledge, IT systems knowledge, financial acumen, people management and development skills, etc.

Simply being current on relevant law is essential but, on its own, it is now not enough for any lawyer who is trying to deliver "law in a business context"; and

  1. that, in times of substantial and enduring political, economic, legal, regulatory and commercial uncertainty, businesses have great need of "strategic navigators" to help them to plot the best, or at least the least worst, route through the uncertainty and then to continually re-plot the route as the journey continues – and this is a role which great GCs can reasonably lay claim to.

And, on reflection, I feel that this makes the Forum agenda very timely and relevant to our roles.

There is an old joke that you should "never assume" because to do so could make "an ass out of 'u' and an ass out of 'me'" and, if there is one thing that is absolutely certain about the next few years, it is that all assumptions that are embedded in our businesses' operating models are likely to need to be identified, tested and retested very regularly.

Old certainties, business planning assumptions, strategies, trading partnerships, target markets, regulations, rules, laws, medium- and long-term contractual commitments etc are all up for question and for change now and are likely to be regularly for the foreseeable future.

And what does that mean for the GC?

Well firstly it presents a challenge…

…when so much of what is changing is legal or regulatory in nature. When so much of what is changing impacts on:

  • your company; and
  • your employees; and
  • your customers; and
  • your suppliers; and
  • the regulators and government bodies (whether competition, or data privacy or patent or trade guarantee, or customs and excise, or stock market or financial services…) of your company and of your customers and suppliers…

Whether it be how your client and staff personal data will be handled across Europe, your company IP and trademarks are registered, your goods and services supplied, your staff moved across borders under current longer term or anticipated future arrangements, there is so much for you to keep on top of nationally and internationally – to monitor and understand the possible changes, to understand the impacts on your contracts, your renewals, your negotiations, your licences and permits.

All this, in turn, puts a premium on being organised, being efficient, being effective, having legal, regulatory and contractual knowledge at your fingertips and having the business acumen to understand how and when this knowledge impacts on the business and the skills to communicate this effectively to the right people in the business at the right time.

But, it's not just you trying to do this on your own – it's your team too – those you employ, those you borrow time from in other departments, those you influence to do what you need and your external advisers. It is being properly on top of all of these relationships and managing them well that means that you are providing effective legal support to the business and not just being the outdated caricature of the "reactive, responsive, 'rubber stamper' " legal function that should be consigned to the last century.

And, secondly, there is a great opportunity for strategic GCs (and a real risk of failure for those who are not).

Many good businesses try to build current, one year, three year and sometimes longer forward looking business strategies and plans. Most businesses make forward commercial commitments to customers, to suppliers, to landlords, to employees (such as incentive plans and pensions) for longer periods still.

And rarely have so many legal, regulatory and contractual uncertainties come simultaneously to the fore as key business risks in those strategies, plans and commitments.

Rarely has the legal role, if well performed - strategically, agilely, proactively, "empathetically" to business needs and drivers, and with a continual thoughtful scan of the legal and business "horizon" - been so potentially pivotal to the future success of so many businesses and to the forward plans, strategies and risk analyses that provide a route to that success.

In short, great GCs with strong legal teams (in the wide sense described above) have a huge opportunity to become pivotal members of the business' strategic and operational management; to help to calibrate and recalibrate the risk appetite of the business; to help to identify key opportunities and challenges to business strategy and plans, to margins, to country product and service roll out and retrenchment plans.

And, of course, the reverse is also true and weak GCs and teams could fail their businesses substantially and visibly.

Which brings us nicely back to the agenda of this Forum which gives you a great chance to reflect on and to develop your thinking and your strategy to deal with the challenges ahead and to come out as one of those strategic leaders of your business; the great GC, "the Navigator" helping your management to find the best way through what is to come.

I hope that you have a great Forum!

Written for Legal Week Law. See more here.