Brenda, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us. I’d like to start by hearing your view on whether there Is there such a thing as a “typical” General Counsel, or do you think the role varies based on the organisation, industry, or perhaps other factors?
I think there are certain characteristics that a good GC needs to have: leadership for example, strategic skills and business acumen – those things could be described as typical, but I think most GCs would agree that it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’. As a GC you’re often much more than a legal representative, you’re a business partner too, and there is an expectation that you’ll be able to move the dial where it matters most (profitability, for example). To do that to a high standard, I believe you need to immerse yourself in the area in which you work and take a real interest in the business. So, although there are some key characteristics common to many GCs, there must be divergence to effectively deal with the things that are most relevant to your industry or sector.
Can you tell me a bit more about those key skills and characteristics that contribute to a General Counsel’s success?
Without doubt, the skillsets required will vary according to where your role is and the individual needs of the business. But I think inquisitiveness, curiosity (which is especially important when it comes to untangling negative scenarios), the ability to navigate complexity and negotiate are important (and common), elements of life as a GC. You need to be ready to learn and adapt and be fluid in your approach: more sponge than stone to use an analogy! Because things will go wrong, and you’ll need to be able to come up with a plan B, often a plan C and D as well. So, a successful General Counsel needs to be able to think through two or three scenarios at once and be ready to change direction if circumstances demand it.
Can you share some personal examples of how these skills and characteristics have been crucial in your role as a General Counsel?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pandemic really brought all those things I’ve just talked about to the fore. At Kone we were learning and making changes to how we worked on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. The nature of what we do, where we do it and how our workforce operates means we had to constantly reassess, change, sway – keeping an awareness of both government policy and what was happening on the ground. I had to make decisions and I didn’t have the luxury of a week to think about it! The business was looking to me to guide them through the crisis, so I had to wear a lot of hats: provide the answers the organisation was looking for and support for the people on the ground facing daily risks. It was very hands on and I often had to think on my feet, using a lot of the softer skills that come with being an advisor and business partner. At the time it felt like being a chameleon – I adapted to the environment I found myself in and had to quickly assess whether it was time to dodge or stand my ground. It all comes back to the sponge analogy – you need to be willing to learn, even from younger members of the team and I had to be willing to change direction and flex my approach as the crisis unfolded and the needs of the business changed.
In your experience, are these skills and characteristics something that someone can develop and enhance over time, or do they require a more inherent aptitude?
I do believe these are skills that can be developed, but in my experience they all require a level of personal awareness, so you’d need a certain level of emotional intelligence for that development to happen. And without an inherent ability (and desire) to learn, to grow, to adapt, you’ll likely struggle.
With so much going on, how do you stay current with the evolving legal landscape, and what role do you think continuous learning plays in the success of a General Counsel?
As a GC you have to continuously learn. I utilise everything and everyone around me. The nature of my role means I’m involved in everything, so I need to stay up to date with things like employment law, data protection, construction law, dispute resolution and all the other things that enable me to be a true business partner. I make a point of staying close to what I think is important now, whether that’s keeping up with insolvency reports, attending training courses, or reading the trade press. It’s so important to me that I now carve out time specifically for learning, and I’ll always spot opportunities to ask external counsel to come in and provide some training or ask other members of my team when I think they have skills or knowledge that I can benefit from.
How do you manage stress and maintain a healthy work-life balance as a General Counsel?
As a GC there’s always an element of firefighting and it can feel as though 23hrs a day are dedicated to work, which is why it’s so important to make time for you. It may be a cliché, but it’s true and the benefits are enormous. Everyone will have their own way of doing this, but for me, it means committing to going to the gym 3 times a week. To guarantee that I don’t miss a session I make sure that I’m there by 6am. This works for my family and the reality is that it’s the only way I can fit it in. I’ve had this routine in place for a year and a half now, and consistency really does breed good habits. I’ve noticed a significant shift not just in how I feel when I’m there, but in my lifestyle as a whole: I eat better, deal with stress better and because it’s my own time, if I really don’t feel like working out – I just sit in the sauna and relax.
Can you share a mentorship or learning experience that significantly influenced your growth as a General Counsel?
The first GC I worked with, David McLurgh, was the person who really set me on this path. He spotted my potential as a junior in-house lawyer and persuaded me to make the move from employment to construction. He was a sponge and he taught me how to be one too – continuously learning and changing to make the most of every situation. I try to embody a lot of what he did for me both in my day-to-day work as well as in the way that I lead my team.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring legal professionals who hope to become successful General Counsels in the future?
This is a tough one. Ultimately, you have to be willing to manage up, down, and sideways. I sometimes joke that you’re not always going to be right even when you’re right, and by that, I mean that being legally right is not always the right answer for the business. So going back to the multiple scenarios piece that I mentioned earlier in this interview, to be successful as a GC you need to be able to prepare for all eventualities, assess the risks and potential outcomes, and not be afraid to make decisions that may mean changing your course. You also need to be able to impart legal information to non-legal people who often have little to no interest in the law at all; they just want to be able to achieve a specific result. It all comes down to being human and offering workable, win-win solutions.
The last thing I would say is that it’s vital to find sponsors and mentors within the business who will support you and push you forwards. It’s so important to build a peer group and as your career develops, this becomes even more valuable. I’m still close with some of the solicitors from my private practice days and really appreciate having a sounding board for ideas or concerns – it’s a circle of trust. You can’t predict the future, but having a support network within law means you’ll be surrounded by people who just get it, no matter where your career takes you.