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Board roles “there for the taking” for Britain’s general counsel

Lawyers need to ensure their roles extend beyond the obvious affiliation with risk and compliance if they want to secure influential positions on their company boards, new research reveals.

Just 22% of in-house general counsel (GCs) say they hold active board positions within their organisations. However, senior company bosses say that a board role is there for the taking, providing their legal counsel demonstrate commercial awareness and acumen.

The research, carried out by UK law firm Shoosmiths and The Lawyer magazine after a survey of 224 in-house lawyers and company directors, also reveals that:

  • More than one-third (36%) of GCs or senior in-house lawyers surveyed who do not hold a board position wanted to be on the board within the next five years;
  • A further 29% of the 78% who do not hold a board position seek opportunities to actively contribute to board-level decision making and strategic planning;
  • 63% saw their current alignment to the board as relating to risk, business or reputational.

A key finding of the research is that, when asked what skills general counsel needed to show in order to secure a seat on the board, the views of lawyers compared to company directors diverged quite significantly.
Lawyers thought ‘better knowledge of financials’ and ‘business skills’ would help them get on. However, company directors gave more weight to ‘industry/sector insight’, and independent experience, such as holding a trustee position or a non-executive director (NED) role.

Shoosmiths partner, and head of the firm’s business advisory division, Stuart Little said: “Now is a crucial time to be asking questions of whether British businesses are making the most of their GCs and legal teams, as the business challenges deepen over Brexit and strategic thinking is at a premium.

“Finding out how we can equip GCs to take a central role in their companies – whether in the field of having a better understanding of the soft skills that warrant investment, or in strengthening the means of measurement and data capture around what they do – is an area we are actively exploring with our clients in 2019.”

Edward Smith, general counsel at Telefonica, one of the GCs who took part in the survey, said: “For CEOs it’s not “why would I have my GC on the board?” but rather “why wouldn’t I?”

National law firm Shoosmiths, which advises [28] companies in the FTSE 250, provides a range of practical support tools and information for in house lawyers, ranging from the provision of regional training sessions, through to its flexible range of Resource Solutions (designed to extend legal teams’ resource) and Compendium, an innovative legislation tracker published quarterly.

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