Are In-house Lawyers Business Partners Rather Than Service Providers?

Blogs December 1, 2016


In autumn 2015, Siemens’ in-house legal team received the Financial Times award for innovation in operational change: these lawyers changed their function from service providers to business partners. Congratulations to the Siemens’ in-house legal team! However, this news made me wonder why business lawyers need to pay special attention to being business-minded – to the extent that we issue awards to those who have succeeded in doing so. Should it not be natural for them when they are in business? Is it because of education? In Finnish universities, law students mainly study law. Does being part of the business team depend more on personal interests and actions? This topic has been under discussion for as long as I can remember and there’s nothing new under the sun. But what does it mean to be a business partner?

It certainly doesn’t mean that lawyers should act like priests and give their blessing to everything the business asks them to consider. Nor should they sit in their ivory towers and wait for the businesses to contact them. They shouldn’t be policemen who search for all the wrong doings. Nothing like that!

To me, it means having the right attitude and a real interest in the business itself – acting as if the business is their own. I’ll give an almost real life example of what I mean. My favourite character in the TV series ‘Selfridges’ is the wonderful Mr Crabb, CFO of the Selfridges warehouse. His attitude towards the business is as if it was his own. He remains loyal to the CEO and the owner of the business. If needed, he expresses his well-considered, yet sometimes opposing, views to the CEO while looking straight into his eyes. He expresses these opinions only for the purpose of protecting the business and the CEO. The CEO can trust him 100% and respects his straightforward way of working. Mr Crabb is a real business partner. Business lawyers, like CFOs, must get more deeply involved with the business than other lawyers. This means that Lead Legal Counsels need to be part of the management team and contribute their insight to the decision-making.

For myself, the most rewarding moments as a business lawyer were when I had the opportunity to work closely with a company’s CEO and CFO on an intensive M&A project, where it was not so important what educational background one had, but imperative that the team made decisions and moved forward together.

Having an interest in business is of utmost importance for lawyers. When you think about the business, its strategy and its numbers as if the business was your own, you start to think about how to improve it, such as how to protect it against risks. Being a business lawyer no longer only involves giving sound legal advice, but also taking part in business decisions. In 2011, one reputable business magazine listed the following as the new requirements for General Counsels: sharp business instinct, ability to communicate with the Board, a strong network, ability to professionally manage an in-house team, and ability to hire external lawyers in a cost-effective way.

To conclude, I’d like to borrow the words of one of the most successful international General Counsels, Mrs Ritva Sotamaa from Unilever. In a business magazine article, published in November 2015, she said that lawyers must be able to bring added value to the business. Lawyers normally avoid any risks, but she teaches her legal team that there are always risks in business, and that sometimes it is worth taking clever risks. Ritva Sotamaa holds a position in Unilever’s management team and having read the whole article, I’m sure she acts like a business partner as well.