The evolving responsibilities of the General Counsel

As organisations evolve to remain relevant in 21st-century society, so too does the role of General Counsel. This evolution has given rise to new opportunities and challenges for modern GCs as they take on board new responsibilities, become more commercially focused and cut costs.

At our recent Unicorn Legal Leaders Roundtable with James Sullivan (Monzo’s VP Legal), Gordon Youngson (the European Head of Legal for Transferwise) and Tom Hambrett (Head of Legal at Revolut), this shift was a central theme. Speakers highlighted several ways in which the role of GC, particularly at startups and scale-ups, has evolved and the responsibilities this brings.

1) Facilitating the company’s hyper-growth

Companies in the tech space have unlocked an unprecedented rate of growth. What is a concept on one day, could be a viable product the next, and the decision to move into a new market can come at any time.

Hyper-growth can lead to challenges for legal teams as they struggle to keep up with the pace of the business. It often falls on the GC to find ways of tackling issues and preventing the legal function constraining the wider business.

Tom Hambrett told us that at Revolut they’ve even appointed lawyers to their product teams, enabling the team to have confidence that they’re aware of the risks at all times. This ensures risks are spotted as they arise and product can be rolled out on schedule without last-minute complications.

When it comes to international expansion, companies like Monzo, WorldRemit and Transferwise are coming to Lexoo to rapidly source lawyers with local law expertise. We help these teams remove the time-consuming and laborious task of searching for (and vetting) international counsel, facilitating the rapid expansion of the company.

Ultimately, the legal team needs to ensure that growth is sustainable and future-proof, and there are times where legal matters are more pressing than speed. Tom Hambrett hit the nail on the head, recalling this analogy:

“It’s like [the legal team is] the brakes on a race car… the brakes on a race car are really, really big and strong. But that’s because a race car is meant to go and designed to go really, really quickly. So, actually everyone from Lewis Hamilton has brakes for a reason, and you want them to be really effective… and it’s not a bad thing to have big brakes, it just means that you can go a lot faster.”



2) Becoming a trusted advisor to the business on matters beyond legal

Gordon Youngson highlighted that the role is increasingly becoming one of “a trusted friend who has become a trusted partner.” GCs are no longer solely expected to provide legal advice; rather they are becoming trusted advisers and drivers of growth in their own right.

As the role changes, and they become closer to the board and the CEO directly, GCs will be called upon to provide judgement in wider matters that can sometimes be more ethical than legal in nature.

This new-found reliance on the GC outside of the realms of legal presents an exciting yet challenging new opportunity to GCs as they grow their influence and personal standing within the company. However, it also comes with the challenge of simply having to say no sometimes. Given the growth these companies are pursuing, this isn’t always an easy task but it’s part and parcel of being a trusted adviser who is responsible for safeguarding this growth. 

3) Optimising their team and demonstrating value 

Data analysis isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the traditional career as a lawyer. However, many GCs nowadays are turning to data in order to gather insights on their team’s performance and to quantify the value of their work in a way that is understood by the wider business.

GCs are tracking data on both external legal matters (e.g. legal spend) and internal matters such as how many requests they receive, from whom, and their turn-around time. This is of course valuable for demonstrating the value of the team to the wider business but also provides the GC with insights on how to optimise their team and the evidence they need to negotiate budgets or justify bringing on new team members.

4) Fostering new relationships with external counsel 

Today’s GCs are looking for external counsel who will put in the work to understand the team’s culture and commercial drivers so they can provide a more tailored service. This leads many to question their legacy relationships with traditional law firms who haven’t kept pace with the evolution of fast-moving companies and their legal teams.

GCs at companies like Monzo, Transferwise and Revolut are instead turning to ALSPs to foster these more personal relationships with lawyers and find the much-needed agility that they’ve been looking for. Forging these relationships also turns external counsel into an extension of the in-house team who can integrate with the team and become a trusted advisor.

James Sullivan (Monzo) is taking this new approach and onboarding external counsel as if they are joining the company as an employee. This includes giving them a company email address so that they can join the company’s Slack, collaborate on google docs and more. They also get an induction on working with the Monzo team including their communication styles and culture.

These are just a few of the ways in which the GC role is changing…

With the adoption of legal tech, the consolidation of the legal ops function and an increasing focus on legal training within companies, legal teams are sure to see further shifts in the coming years. We for one are a keeping an eye on these industry changes and are always keen to hear how GCs are adapting!

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