As the winner of the ‘Employment Individual of the Year’ at the 2016 Global Counsel Awards, we asked Bridget van der Bijl, legal manager: employment law for Anglo American, her opinion on what it takes to be a successful in-house counsel, the best way to advise senior leadership and what winning the award meant to her.
Describe your current role (responsibilities, size of team, structure).
I am the legal manager: employment law for Anglo American and have responsibility for managing the delivery of employment law services to Anglo American’s businesses in South Africa. As a team of three lawyers reporting into the head of legal South Africa, we support the human resources and employee relations functions, managing over 70,000 employees.
What led you to a career in-house?
The move to an in-house career was unplanned. I was working for a law firm that had Anglo American as one of its clients, and Anglo American approached me with an offer. I have never looked back.
In your current role, what is the most challenging situation that you have faced? What are the most significant challenges that in-house lawyers are likely to face over the next few years?
Perhaps the most challenging matter in which I have been involved was providing legal support for the five-month long strike in the platinum sector – the longest strike in South African history. The strike was marred by acts of violence, the destruction of property and intimidation by the striking workers, as well as untold economic hardship for the striking workers, their families and the communities that depend on their earnings. It was challenging on both a legal and an emotional level.
With the economic pressures facing every industry, in-house lawyers are likely to be required to do more with less – there are greater demands on our services with fewer resources (in terms of both internal headcount and external budgets). This does not appear to be something confined to South Africa or to the mining industry; these pressures are global and extend to almost every sector.
Are there particular types of legal issues that you routinely refer to outside counsel? And what kind of matters do you tend to handle in-house?
Apart from matters involving the courts, which are all referred to external lawyers, we attend to all types of work in-house – provided we have capacity. We also seek external counsel opinions on novel matters. The law is constantly evolving, and different lawyers can hold different legal views, so it is useful and sometimes necessary to get the views of external practitioners.
Our in-house work includes legal support for retrenchments, disciplinary and performance issues, employment equity and employment conditions, collective bargaining issues, business transfers, disputes at the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, industrial action and strikes.
What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?
It is essential for an in-house lawyer to understand the business and build relationships within the business that you serve, so a healthy emotional quotient is crucial. You also need qualities that any successful lawyer should have, such as resilience, creative thinking and the ability to innovate, powers of persuasion and a strong work ethic.
What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?
In-house counsel must find practical solutions to business needs in a legally acceptable way. Executives also tend not to want to be told what they cannot do, but rather want to know how they can achieve their objectives with the minimum of legal risk. This is perhaps the greatest difference between in-house and external lawyers: an external lawyer is doing his or her job when he or she identifies a legal risk, whereas an in-house lawyer is doing his or her job when he or she identifies a practical means of overcoming a legal risk.
How does the legal department contribute to your company’s growth?
At Anglo American the legal department is an essential partner to the business, in that the group’s current strategic objectives are to streamline its portfolio of assets and to ‘right size’ the business to be able to compete in tough economic conditions. This requires the skills of our corporate lawyers to execute the disposals that the group is undertaking, as well as those of my fellow employment lawyers and me to support these strategic initiatives. As a legal department, we have also been very successful in driving cost savings and innovation in the way in which we engage and manage external service providers, which has helped the group to manage its legal expenditure.
With regard to your industry, are there any significant developments worth highlighting?
The mining industry in South Africa is under social, regulatory and political pressure in trying economic circumstances. As an employment lawyer my work is particularly affected by the changing landscape of the South African trade union movement, as it matures and moves away from a single, dominant trade union in the mining sector.
If not a lawyer, what would you be?
A school teacher. I love working with children and take great joy in seeing how young minds develop as a child explores and understands the world. A teacher also has a unique chance to make an impact on and change someone’s life – I was privileged to have had such a teacher in my life.
What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?
It has been the highlight of my career and has been very special to me, both personally and professionally. It is an accolade and an experience that I will cherish forever.
The purpose of the Global Counsel Awards is to identify those in-house counsel, both teams and individuals that excel in their specific roles. The primary aim is to reward lawyers for demonstrable achievements across the full spectrum of in-house responsibility, not simply those who have acted on high-profile transactions. To make a nomination for the 2017 awards please click here.
For further information on the awards, please visit www.globalcounselawards.com.