In-House Counsel Trends: An On Record PR Roundup
As we prepare for 2022, we are working with our law firm and legal services clients to identify opportunities to better serve their clients. Throughout our daily interactions and in a more formal setting – our podcast On Record PR – we speak with in-house counsel about the trends that they foresee having the most significant impact on their businesses’ operations.
As companies settle into a new cadence with vaccine mandates and corporate social responsibility programs reigning supreme, organizations will also need to respond with agility to maintain their competitive strength. And law firms and legal service providers that can support these organizations to remain agile, will maintain a competitive advantage.
Throughout the first two seasons of On Record PR, Furia Rubel team members spoke to the following in-house counsel to get their take on trends impacting the business of law and the delivery of legal services:
- Bryon Koepke, General Counsel of Suburban Propane: Bryon is the Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Suburban Propane, a nationwide distributor of energy products that serves approximately 1.1 million residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural customers through more than 668 locations in 41 states.
- Pavani Thagirisa, Associate GC, VP and Global Head of Legal for ESG at S&P Global: Associate General Counsel, Vice-President and Global Head of Legal for ESG at S&P Global, Pavani joined S&P Global in 2009 and currently advises S&P Global’s enterprise ESG business.
- Bill Heller, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the New York Giants: As the Team’s Chief Legal Officer, Bill is involved in all aspects of the Giants’ business, running the gamut from labor and employment, to sponsorships, naming rights, licensing, entertainment and other contracts, to assistance with the legal aspects of the football operations.
- Christopher Stewart, VP & Assistant General Counsel at AIG Investments: Chris is a Vice President-Assistant General Counsel for AIG Investments in New York. Prior to his role in-house, Chris worked as a corporate associate at both White & Case and Sullivan & Cromwell where his practice focused on financing and developing various transactions in the telecommunications, infrastructure, and oil and gas industries.
- Jason Barnwell, Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs Attorney: Jason’s team focuses on creating the future of Microsoft’s legal practice built upon Microsoft’s technologies. They partner with Microsoft’s legal professionals, internal engineering organization, and other actors in the legal ecosystem to develop culture, skills, and technical solutions that power legal services innovation.
- Bert Kaminski, Director of Legal for Google Cloud: is a seasoned legal counsel in the technology industry, specializing in advanced and emerging fields such as cloud computing, internet of things, artificial intelligence, data science & machine learning. As a Director within Google’s legal organization, Bert leads a team that supports commercial enterprise transactions for key industry segments of Google Cloud, including financial services, healthcare and the public sector.
Approaches to Employment and Staffing: In-House and Outside Counsel
Koepke: Unfortunately, the legal in-house industry has seen a number of layoffs and it’s happened at various levels in the organization, starting at the very top. I’ve seen general counsels laid off simply because they are such a large cost outlier, all the way to administrators in the department. No one has been spared with the pandemic and the financial downturn, which likely will continue for the foreseeable future. We also realized the importance of re-evaluating our current staffing requirement while amid a convergence effort. To accomplish this, we had an external firm perform the evaluation. The outside firm’s perspective helped us immensely. We ended up increasing our staff by adding six new attorney positions and several new support staff positions, as well.
Thagirisa: Partnering with employees means that I’ve built confidence and trust with my colleagues, regardless of where they sit in the organization or what role or function, they play. Unless you have that trust and confidence with your colleagues, it’s going to be very difficult to execute on any strategies, on any philosophies that you, as an individual want to lead or direct the company toward, or that the company overall wants to move toward. As legal leaders, our skillsets position us to be advocates and advisers across a broad spectrum of responsibilities and roles. The first thing that we must do as legal professionals especially as in-house counsel, is that we have to recognize the value of our skills beyond just the legal function. That takes building partnerships and thinking more critically about problems from a multifaceted, multi-dimensional perspective.
Heller: There are a tremendous number of employment issues. We hire a lot of new people, including coaches, and we are reorganizing, so that labor and employment issues are a huge focus at this time of year. At the time of the interview, there were four employees who were expecting children, and we realized that we needed to update our parental leave policy to ensure that it was fair to all parents.
Koepke: We’re seeing many legal department consolidations take opportunities to create savings for themselves through new technologies or designing new processes. Especially while undergoing a convergence project, firms look at ways to control and have those discussions with their law firms. They find new ways to elevate their game, considering the opportunities that are probably being presented to them in ways that perhaps they may not have been able to seize on in the past.
Thagirisa: The legal profession needs to get more sophisticated with technology, data analytics, operations. It goes back to the fact that, unless you have data about what you’re trying to understand and what you’re trying to solve for, you’re not going to get to the end result quickly.
Heller: During the off season, the football people evaluate all sorts of technologies because football today is a data-driven business. I probably am working on three to four technology acquisition agreements now ranging from trial tests to full blown contracts where the biggest issue is data privacy and data security. We are obsessed with that in the NFL. We have to comply with a very lengthy and complicated set of standards that the NFL puts out. All the clubs have to comply with these standards. I work closely with the IT department on the legal side of privacy and compliance.
Barnwell: If you thoughtfully apply technology, innovation, really adaptation to your service offerings, you can create more value. That means you can earn the privilege and the right to potentially bring more value back to your organization. So those investments can create real returns and make your business more profitable, and they can help your business go after new business. Even better, if you thoughtfully apply what we’re talking about, it can make the experiences of your people more fulfilling and so it really does create this virtuous cycle.
Kaminski: What you want to do as a lawyer is get into areas of really depersonalized legal service, where you are giving your clients the things that machines can’t do. Machines are not very good when there’s ambiguity, when the data is amorphous or changing when there are two right answers, where there’s not a sense. Machines can’t tell what the… They don’t have a moral sense of what is the right answer or the right action, or the wrong actions: no right or wrong for machines.
Lawyers can, in this counselor sense, get to this way of really being this legal adviser in the sense of what we should do, why we should do it, how we framing questions and giving that higher level of concierge service because that’s what clients want. Clients don’t just want legal, analytical output; they want that type of higher-level service and value-add by lawyers: advice on how to solve problems and not trust the research end of it, and not just the analytical output and prediction. They want lawyers to take that, contextualize it, give recommendations that are personalized to the lawyers and to the client’s needs.
Koepke: Just as important as creating value is making sure that organizations are communicating and demonstrating that value to their clients so they fully understand the value in-house counsel brings to the table in the first place. It really is an opportunity to demonstrate to our clients and have those conversations about the ways that we’re finding and creating cost savings. What we did to develop new processes or tweak things to deliver savings was not only for the future but also today.
Thagirisa: With respect to law firms’ and in-house legal departments’ hiring professionals to achieve business-of-law objectives, we need to recognize that legal thinking is not reserved for somebody with a law degree. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a language and languages can be learned by anybody. I understand the importance of certifications and the risk minimization of going through that process and having those experiences, but that’s the way the legal profession is evolving, that it’s not just about providing legal advice.
Heller: The best advice I could give to anyone going in-house, whether it’s football or anything else, is learning that we have to put the business first and not our legal training first. No more “on the one hand, on the other hand.” It’s “here’s the path we should take.”
Stewart: Perseverance is key. Become an expert at what you do. In my opinion, it takes the same amount of dedication and day in, day out grinding to just try and be as good as you possibly can at this profession. They call it a practice for a reason. You try your best to be informed. You try your best to advise as best as you can and make sure that people know where the line is and how to navigate and not fall on the other side of it, but it takes a lot of work. It’s a lot of work, and time literally is our modicum of value and payment in this profession. Everything is billed, by sometimes 15-minute increments, or sometimes six. If there’s anything that I think sports has helped prepare me for this profession, it’s definitely that day in, day out grind. Business excellence takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
Kaminski: There will be some change. McKinsey & Company predicted that 23% of an average lawyer’s job can be automatable. Employment in the legal profession will start moving from associates and lawyers and legal staff, non-lawyers, doing contract review and contract management and process optimization: that type of thing can be automated. That may result in the reduction in the need for that kind of legal service, as it becomes automated. It requires lawyers to then up-skill and cross-skill and develop higher value type services to their clients to preserve and to enhance their careers.
Sights Set on Data-Driven ESG Programs
Thagirisa: ESG has very clear intellectual and emotional connections to diversity and to the idea of inclusion from a number of different perspectives. ESG is environmental, social and governance. And from a financial corporate perspective, it’s an assessment of a company’s ability to assess long-term sustainability while generating stakeholder value. When customers come to us, they’re looking to understand what ESG factors have relevance in their growth strategies and their future footprint within their industry, or in the broader market. The ESG factors they have brought application for our customers and, overall, our customers come to us to better understand their own ESG footprint and understand the risks and opportunities associated with these ESG factors. Ultimately, if you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it. ESG data is critical to help companies mitigate their own risks and capitalize on these opportunities. There’s been strong conversation around climate in particular and the role that the private sector plays in terms of addressing climate change and other climate risk factors.
COVID’s Continuing Effects
Koepke: Centered around the financial downturn, companies are now trying to deal with the pandemic. I have had conversations with colleagues who fill positions in legal departments, from general counsel to staff counsel, and all various levels. The common theme I’m hearing is they have been pushed to create savings and find ways of reducing costs.
We’re seeing many legal department consolidations take opportunities to create savings for themselves through new technologies or designing new processes. While undergoing a convergence project, firms look at ways to control and have those discussions with their law firms.
They find new ways to elevate their game, considering the opportunities that are probably being presented to them in ways that perhaps they may not have been able to seize on in the past.
Heller: Over-layered on everything I do, I was on the small team responsible for our legal and NFL COVID compliance. It was a monster, and it took enormous team effort. I am the only in-house lawyer, there is normally a lot of work to do, but COVID doubled or tripled the volume of work.
Thagirisa: COVID brought the idea of a pandemic to the forefront. 2020 also challenged all of us, especially in the United States, to confront social justice issues and racial inequity in a manner that I don’t think as a society and as a modern society, we’ve fully engaged. S&P Global recognized that we had an obligation to our employees as leaders and to our stakeholders beyond just the employees to really try and quickly adjust and flex and solve for the challenges that we were being confronted with as a result of these different social, environmental changes going on in the world.