Three leading GCs give insights on how to become a ‘trusted advisor’

by Mackenzie McCarty16 May 2014
In-house legal teams need to reposition themselves as “trusted advisors”, rather than “service providers”, according to Meridian Energy general counsel and company secretary, Jason Stein, Xero general counsel and company secretary, Matt Vaughan, and CERA’s chief legal advisor, Bronwyn Arthur, who presented yesterday at the CLANZ annual conference.

Each offered revealing insights into how they’ve each managed to become pivotal parts of holistic teams in their varying and rapidly changing work environments.

In order to determine what being a trusted advisor means, Stein says it’s important to first outline what it doesn’t mean.

“Having [a law degree] does not make you a trusted advisor,” he says. “In fact, in many circumstances, having a law degree and telling everyone about it is likely to inhibit you from becoming a trusted advisor. It’s less about being a subject-matter expert and more about strategy and style.”

Stein says it’s also helpful to identify exactly whom you need to be a trusted advisor to, so as to avoid confusing priorities.

“Is it the CEO? It should be. Is it the executive board? It should be. Senior management? Probably. But beyond that, you have to prioritise,” he says. “Critically, this should include the CFO or the equivalent person … I think lawyers often aren’t forward-thinking enough about the financial side of the business. If you want to become a trusted advisor [in a particular organisation], it’s important to understand a number of skills and functions in that space.”

Arthur, meanwhile, stresses that in-house lawyers also need to avoid being too hard on themselves and accept that they do sometimes need outside help.

“You are going to make mistakes…and [external] lawyers might just be your best friends,” she says.

Building relationships with other departments within your organisation is worth spending time on too, according to Arthur. As the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Agency (CERA) grew and developed following the February 2011 earthquake, she and her legal team were moved out into the Christchurch suburbs and kept separate from many of the contractors and engineers involved in the rebuild. However, in light of several aftershocks, she was temporarily moved into a space at the local art gallery, which she shared with some CERA people who spent much of their time in the field. This time period, she says, served as an excellent learning experience and developed bonds between co-workers in what could have been polarised sectors of the organisation.

Vaughan admits his experience at rapidly expanding software company Xero has been, at times, “manic and a bit scary”, but says it’s also taught him three key things: Ask “what won’t we do?; embrace technology; and ‘prevention is better than cure’.

“Asking ‘what won’t we do’ enables teams to identify the tasks they can do – and to prioritise those tasks,” says Vaughan. “It helps do away with ‘half-baked’ things.”

Similarly, technology, when used effectively, can save lawyers a tremendous amount of time and effort. “Our CEO announced he was moving us away from Microsoft and onto using Google Drive. Most people were ok with it, but you looked around the room and you could just see the legal teams’ heads explode!,” he says.

However, he says the change made tasks that normally took eight hours – where documents were e-mailed around to offices across the globe, edited, sent back and altered again – now took around 20 minutes via live editing.

Finally, Stein says it’s important for lawyers to maintain a sense of balance – and that means outside of the office as well.

“Remember, it’s not all about work,” he says. “Have good experiences outside of work and you will be able to bring more to the table.”