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Business people who happen to be lawyers – celebrating the best of the best GCs

26 April 2016

Earlier this month saw the publication of the fourth edition of Legal Business' GC Powerlist – in my opinion, the definitive list of the top in-house counsel in the UK. In the publication I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts on the state of the market – this is what I said:

It was late 2012 when RPC first became involved with Legal Business’ GC Powerlist. Back then, over four years after Lehman Brothers collapsed, the world economy was still looking parlous.

Another four years on and, although we’re now certainly on a firmer footing economically, there are still plenty of reasons to be fearful, or at least cautious, over what the future might hold for businesses: the slowdown in China; the collapse in the price of oil; stock market woes, here and in Asia; and uncertainty surrounding Britain’s possible exit from Europe, to name just a few.

But, my sense is that in-house legal teams are far better equipped in 2016 to deal with the shifting demands on their businesses caused by such events than they were even just four years ago. And that’s a sense supported by looking through this list of the best general counsel (GCs) in the UK, many of whom I’ve been fortunate to meet. There are some familiar names here – people who have made that leap from being very good functional in-house lawyers to genuinely indispensable advisers to their boards. This is an area where, in the past, the US has been ahead of us in the UK and that’s maybe because the law in the States has historically been seen more as a tool used to achieve a business goal, as opposed to an end in itself.

But that’s changing here. For many, in fact, that change has already come.

The global financial crisis has driven the more forward-thinking lawyers in the UK – and I include private practice in this – to break the mould and invert the traditional approach, where we start with words and finish with numbers. The numbers, the balance sheet and the P&L must come first.

Those at the top of their game (self-evidently those in this year’s Powerlist) have gone through the fundamental change in a GC’s mindset that now says: ‘We’re business people who happen to be lawyers,’ not the other way around. And like all top-quality business people, in my experience the best of the best GCs have become skilful leaders. They aren’t necessarily always the most vocal or the most technically brilliant, but common to all is an absolute clarity of purpose – of mission – both at an individual and a team level. And that’s vital. After all, without that clarity how can you demonstrate to the board not only why you’re there, but also the value of what it is that you bring to the organisation?

Just as importantly, you need that clear sense of purpose to be able to motivate others to come on the journey with you. It’s no coincidence that several of the GCs in this year’s list are leaders of the people who made up 2015’s Powerlist Team Elite.

Finally, but importantly, there’s politics. In a law firm, understanding the political landscape is key to success (some might say survival). But in my view it’s just as important as an in-house lawyer, both in terms of your ability to realise your vision for the team and also when it comes to achieving your own personal career goals.

So, what I see in this list of top GCs are great lawyers; great business people; inspirational leaders; and also sensitive and skilful politicians, who know where the influence lies in their organisation and how to use that knowledge to best achieve their mission.

I guess the challenge is if you're already in the Powerlist how will you make sure you stay there next year? And if you've got ambitions to make this stellar list in 2017, what is it that's going to help you make that leap?