In conversation with: Stephanie Beat, Certas Energy

The scope to contribute to the strategic direction of the business as a GC or in-house legal team is enormous, but historically, these roles have often been seen as the people who say ‘no’. We explore what it takes to be seen as a true business partner and how you can add value over and above just ‘getting the law right’.

Stephanie qualified in private practice as a Commercial Solicitor, but soon felt frustrated by what she describes as the distance from her clients. A secondment cemented this feeling and after two and half years in private practice, Stephanie made the move in-house. After working for an online retailer for 9 years, Stephanie joined JLA, a private equity backed business as their first Legal Counsel. Describing her time at JLA as “eye opening and pretty intense” she went on to explain why she believes being a GC is about more than just answering the legal questions, and how the role can be a force for good.

Stephanie Beat, Legal & Compliance Director, from Certas Energy in conversation with Jeanette Burgess, Head of Regulatory & Compliance, Walker Morris
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It’s great to talk to you today, Stephanie, thank you for taking the time to tell us more about your role and experience in-house. First, I’d like to ask you how you believe the role of General Counsel or in-house legal team goes beyond risk mitigation to actively contribute to the strategic direction of the business?

I’m part of the leadership team here at Certas Energy and to be honest that’s a real game changer. It allows me to build partnership relationships with the MDs of the divisions and be part of the discussions around business strategy and direction. It also demonstrates to the wider business the importance of legal and compliance, so it sets the tone from the top. To be really effective in my role, I need as much information about the business strategy, goals, priorities and challenges as possible, and being brought in at an early stage is vital to this. On the other hand, if you’re kept at a distance, you can’t really add much value or be anything more than a tick box person. So being given the opportunity to have this kind of business-critical information and insight, is fundamental.

There’s always so much interesting stuff going on, that it’s important to use the many transferrable skills we have as lawyers to do more than just answer the legal questions. For instance, I joined “General Counsel Sustainability Leaders” (formerly Lawyers for Net Zero) early on in my time at Certas Energy, because ESG and sustainability are areas that I’m interested in and I could see how important it would be to the business, given the nature of what we do and the part it has to play in the energy transition. It struck a chord as an area where I was perfectly placed to really make a difference, and had the potential to influence decisions and drive change within the business. Using our positions as a force for good is one of the most impactful and rewarding things we can do.

Thanks Stephanie. Can you give us an example of where you and your team have played a pivotal role in shaping the company’s strategic decisions or initiatives?

At the moment it’s a really exciting time to be part of Certas Energy with the expansion of our products and services to our customers as part of the energy transition. We had an example recently where we were initially instructed to “draft a contract”. When we started to ask questions so we could fully understand what was required, it was clear that there was a lot of detail that hadn’t been thought through: a number of key commercial and strategic decisions hadn’t been made yet and there was a need to move quickly. Rather than just say “no”, we worked with the team to suggest ways that we could approach things differently and reduce risk. When the team started to think through the different scenarios, they could see that some of the drivers were around risk, but there were also other approaches that hadn’t been considered. We were able to advise about new areas of regulation and compliance that the team were unfamiliar with, and suggest ways that we could partner with colleagues from around the business to get help in specific areas. After talking through what they wanted to achieve and how they were planning to do it, our suggestions resulted in a change of approach and direction. Our input meant that the team was able to speak more confidently about why the go live was going to be delayed – and they didn’t use the “it’s stuck with legal” line. This was a great example of the cross-transferrable skills that we have as lawyers and the ways of thinking that make us valuable to the business at lots of different points: we can add the most value when we play a part in the journey from the initial idea right through to the design of how we’ll implement it, and on to taking it live.

How do you make sure that people come to you, like in the case of this product launch? Are there particular strategies you employ to ensure your legal team is seen as a proactive partner driving the business forward, rather than just a team that ticks boxes, or says “no”?

To a large extent it’s about being visible, showing an interest and making ourselves approachable and available to all parts of the business. Realistically, there’s always going to be a minority of people who don’t understand why we’re involved in things, or talking about things other than the obvious legal matters, but we do see things in a different way. The nature of what we do and our training as lawyers means we can usually get into the detail of whatever is happening pretty quickly, and can even be ahead in terms of things that people may not have even thought of yet. When we’re involved from the start, there’s an enormous amount we can do to make life easier for the business and that is what is key – if people think that involving you will actually help them to achieve what they want to do, you are halfway there.

Collaboration is key to successful integration between legal and other departments. How do you foster strong partnerships with different teams to better understand their goals and challenges?

You have to put in the effort to build relationships. Some teams will embrace you, others may keep you at a distance and it is usually the latter that actually need you the most. A great example of this is the monthly “Legal and Compliance Connects” which we’ve been running for about 18 months. We started by inviting teams from across the business to a half hour meeting each month with a member of both the compliance and legal team to discuss projects, issues, compliance concerns and legal and regulatory updates. Over time we asked the business to take over the running of the meetings, to set the agenda and the direction of the discussion. Not only did they work as a way of getting to know people from across the business and to raise the profile of the team, but we were able to gain a better understanding of what the teams were focusing on, what was in the pipeline and where they needed support. We want people to feel comfortable coming to us with questions or concerns – this is just one way for them to do that, but it seems to work.

What role does ongoing education and awareness about the industry and market trends play in helping your legal team provide strategic value to the business?

This is something that’s really important – a key skill, but can be really difficult sometimes to make the time for! We do make use of a lot of updates from law firms, webinars, workshops, that kind of thing. General commercial awareness skills can help you to understand how and why your business needs to act or move in the way it does, and in some cases enables you to actually identify opportunities. Sector specific membership organisations can be really helpful for this: when I worked in retail for instance, we were members of the British Retail Consortium, which allowed me to learn a lot from other businesses in the sector who were all grappling with the same issues. I encourage my team to take whatever is being offered and make the most of it.

External law firms often serve as important partners. How do you collaborate with these firms to align their services with the business’s strategic goals?

I always say that I like to work with the people, not the firm, and I tend to like to work with people that show an interest in the business but also the challenges of the legal team. That’s really important when it comes to collaboration, as well as making sure their services are aligned with our strategic goals. The more they invest in you, get to know the business and your team and understand what you need, the more successful the relationship is likely to be. We’re always under pressure to reduce costs and deliver more, so if an external provider can show a willingness to make an investment, it’s always really appreciated. I always enjoy getting calls from our advisors out of the blue, proactively asking for a catch up or sending me something topical or an update on emerging risks. It’s nice to think they’ll have a finger on the pulse of what you’re doing strategically and have the foresight to get in touch. In our case that means having a good idea of our priorities. At the moment, sustainability and the energy transition has a huge focus and is gathering momentum fast, so it can be a challenge to keep up sometimes. Anything that can be sent directly out to the business is a bonus!

As the business landscape evolves, how do you see the role of the General Counsel and the in-house legal team evolving to provide even more strategic value?

We will always have to find ways to do more for less and demonstrate value, being as efficient as possible is one element of this and legal tech will play a part but we have a great opportunity almost every day to demonstrate that we can do far more than just the legal stuff. Business acumen and commerciality will be right up there alongside the more academic legal knowledge, and honing those softer skills will be very much the norm.

Finally, how do you envision the future relationship between in-house legal teams and external law firms in terms of driving business strategy?

There will likely always be a need for in-house teams to engage with external firms for more specialist areas and to work with experts in their field, but I think development of the more successful, sustainable relationships will involve a greater amount of checking in. Law firms will need to take a genuine interest in understanding the business problems of their clients, the industry pressures, and how we’re responding to the needs of our own internal clients. Advising in isolation of this is not only more difficult (and probably more expensive for the client) but is also unlikely to give the in-house team what they need. I think that there will also be a desire for external law firms to be more innovative and be willing to take a punt and explore new things. It should be a mutual relationship with both sides putting in effort to discuss and debate potential opportunities. From my perspective, I’m always very clear about the scope of what we want from our external law firms but maybe I am being too restrictive sometimes – once a legal partner understands your pain points it’s the perfect opportunity for them to be proactive and showcase creative thinking around what else they can offer. We’re paying for experts in their fields and that’s what we expect, but there is also an element of wanting to know that you are front of mind and can count on the firms you use to provide timely support and creative solutions.

“You have to put in the effort to build relationships. Some teams will embrace you, others may keep you at a distance and it is usually the latter that actually need you the most.”

Stephanie Beat, Legal and Compliance Director, Certas Energy
Stephanie Beat, Legal & Compliance Director, from Certas Energy in conversation with Jeanette Burgess , Head of Regulatory & Compliance, Walker Morris