We asked John Harrison, member of the executive committee and group general counsel at Airbus and the winner of the General Counsel of the Year award at the 2017 Global Counsel Awards, his 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 him.

Describe your current role (responsibilities, size of team, structure).

We have 400-plus lawyers in the group, with a turnover of around €70 billion and 134,000 people in the company. As group general counsel and a member of the executive committee, I sit within the executive management team, which consists of the top six people in the company reporting to the CEO. My responsibilities include all of the legal aspects, as well as the corporate secretarial aspects – running the board and committee and running the day-to-day life of the listed companies. As general counsel, I am responsible for all contracts, litigation, intellectual property and support of the operational business, and also head up the compliance department, which is a particular focus for us at the moment.

What’s key to my position is that I’m at the table looking at everything – I’m part of the top management decision-making body looking at the entirety of the business, and that puts you in quite a unique position in terms of managing the legal and compliance risk in the company. Before I joined, three separate people served as company secretary, general counsel and head of compliance, so those positions were merged into one in 2015.

What led you to a career in-house?

To be honest, my career is a series of accidents – good or bad! I was at Clifford Chance for seven years and had an interesting offer incidentally from Airbus. I haven’t always worked for them; however, at the time I was an aircraft finance lawyer and the offer was to join at the point when the company was developing and beginning to set up an aircraft leasing company – which was breaking new ground, as there were no second-hand Airbus aircraft at the time. This subsequently resulted in a life in-house.

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?

The role of the in-house counsel has changed dramatically over the last 10 years – in a good sense. The increasing complexity of regulation, the ‘global village’ and the fact that everything we do is cross-border, combined with the challenges of Brexit and new regulations such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation – all of this means that we are constantly challenged and as a result our role has become more important.

Personally, I have to ensure that I have the right people around; finding and keeping the right talent is difficult. A general counsel has to spend a lot of time thinking not only about the problems, but also the people, and as a result I should be spending up to 40% of my time managing this.

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?

Airbus is not just commercial – we also build satellites, rockets and military aircraft, and we are the largest civil helicopter manufacturer in the world. However, 70% of our business does relate to commercial aircraft, so we do a lot of this in-house. We also do a lot of financing and structuring for our customers in-house, as well as intellectual property. We move outside when we recognise that it wouldn’t make sense for us to have that expertise in-house or if it’s a question of resources (eg, for a big arbitration or a bond issue).

What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?

You have to be interested in and love the business, and you have to tailor your advice to the business. This is the difference between outside and in-house counsel: as in-house counsel you are a part of and a service provider to the business, and the business is your client even though you are a part of it. If you are really interested in the company and its concerns, the advice that you provide will be in context, much more accurate and meaningful. You have to read the quarterly press releases and be interested in the products, services and strategies. You’re not just giving advice from an ivory tower; you become a stakeholder in and a part of the business, and the variety and richness of the things we do are very rewarding.

What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?

There’s a special skill involved in advising senior leadership – they don’t have much time and are not necessarily interested in focusing on the finer principals of the law; rather, they are looking for a solution but at the same time want to understand the risks associated with that solution. You don’t go to a senior member of management with four options; you take the best option and outline the pros and cons. You need to be incredibly succinct, as you have a small window of time, and this takes time to learn. You must be solution orientated, but clear about the risks. Often this means telling them what they don’t want to hear, but you must not shy away from this; you are adding value to the business and this is why it’s so important to understand the business as a whole, and to ensure that you can provide context.

How does the legal department contribute to your company’s growth?

Very significantly – we negotiate contracts, manage the risks, protect IP rights, defend our rights and defend the company if we think that we need to protect our interests. The legal function is embedded throughout the business, making sure that we comply with the laws that regulate us and that we sell things in a lawful way. We’re everywhere – we’re a bit like the blood in the body, you need us and people are becoming more conscious of this.

With regard to your industry, are there any significant developments worth highlighting?

We’re embarking on the digitalising revolution. We’re spending a lot of time and effort working out how we can digitalise our processes – from manufacturing to product development to administration. There is also a big data revolution: we have ‘data lakes’ full of information on the performance of our aircraft and we can use this to improve our performance, maintenance and repairs, among other things. We are focusing on how we’ll be communicating in a more sophisticated way – we want to use less paper and more tailored digitalised systems within our business. We are also affected by the same challenges that everyone else is facing – for example, the increasingly complex nature of regulation and challenges such as Brexit.

If not a lawyer, what would you be?

I wanted to become a member of parliament, to go into politics. It was an idea, but then I discovered that I like and enjoy what I’m doing.

What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?

It was a very nice surprise! It’s a recognition as much for the team I’m leading as for me. I don’t take it all for me; it’s a recognition of the work we’re doing in the legal community. It was a great honour and I was really very humbled.

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 2018 awards please click here.