Building bridges: that’s how in-house counsel should do. But how?

Our takeaways from the ACC European Conference in Brussels


by michela cannovale

Climate change, socio-political conflicts, economic recession: the world is facing an unprecedented crisis. And in-house legal departments are not immune to these challenges. On the contrary, their role makes them strategically capable, during such a crisis, of creating connections by bringing together companies, financial sector, social apparatus, and government institutions, accelerating the transition to a more sustainable economic model and translating complex regulatory requirements into actionable business objectives. This is how general counsel and their team manage to add value to their organisations – a task that goes beyond simple legal advice and which, at this year’s ACC Europe conference in Brussels, fell under the heading of ‘building bridges’. What do in-house counsels do? They build bridges. “Because like bridges – Eva Argiles, general counsel at Applus and president of ACC Europe, explained well – corporate lawyers connect two parties, two departments, different stakeholders, their company with the outside world, and they have to guarantee stability, security and crisis management”.

This was discussed in more detail in the opening round table of the conference by Vittorio Di Bucci, Principal Legal Adviser, European Commission; Philip Eyskens, Chief Legal & Compliance Officer, Bekaert; Inderpreet Sawhney, Group General Counsel, Infosys.

Building bridges after Covid

According to Di Bucci, the need to build bridges that were as stable as possible began to be felt in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, when many factors created the perfect storm for corporate legal departments, forcing general counsels to find new ways of working in order not to collapse along with their companies. “With the coronavirus – and then with the crises that followed – corporate demands and expectations on response times increased exponentially. We now have to react much faster to, for example, provide vaccines, but also to provide sanctions to Russia after it attacked Ukraine. Another example is energy crisis: we are expected to find innovative ways to react very quickly towards energy operators”.

Building bridges after the energy crisis and climate change

In recent years, the many tasks of in-house lawyers have ranged from the implementation of evolving public health guidelines for workplace safety to, as Di Bucci mentioned, finding new solutions for environmental, social and governance issues (the famous ESG). The need for a more sustainable approach, Sawhney added, has forced companies to change. And for the purposes of this change, they are increasingly relying on their in-house lawyers. “Since sustainability has become a matter of regulation – Sawhney said – as corporate lawyers we make sure that all our campuses become eco-friendly. But we also undertake many initiatives that offer sustainability as a service: access to water, access to education (a type of education that is also linked to technology, gender diversity), and data privacy. And we find the best way to do this is through ‘cross functional teams’”.

Building bridges after the advent of AI

But, according to Sawhney, the advent of artificial intelligence has also contributed, as has covid and climate change, to changing the role of in-house counsel, creating the need to build new bridges. “I think that just as AI was considered very much futuristic until a few years ago, we cannot now imagine what the future looks like. However, beyond the benefits that AI offers, there are also legal implications that we, as in-house counsel, have to consider: how do we ensure that what these tools offer us is correct? How do we cope with data privacy, social justice and regulations when dealing with machines? How can we relate with the fact that today we are dealing with a new language linked to these tools? And again: what do we do with our jobs that, as we have seen, are easily replaced by a machine?”.

“The European Commission – Di Bucci added – is also reflecting on how to deal with AI. Two years ago, the Commission made the first proposal to regulate AI, because as Europe we believe that the risk behind it is high and that it has to be highly regulated and conform to our rules. We have to take into account the liability and all the new challenges related to AI”.

So, how do you build bridges? The importance of resilience

In-house counsels are therefore increasingly busy with an heavier burden of responsibility covering public health, socio-political crises, economic crises, artificial intelligence, and data protection. From our conversation with the conference participants, it seemed obvious that learning the business and building relationships within the legal team is a rather simple task for any in-house counsel. The difficult – and also the most important – part starts when in-house counsel has to communicate with colleagues from different departments. Because lawyers talk about law, sales talk about sales, IT about IT and finance… about finance. But they all have to meet at some point and be able to speak the same language.

Assuming that communication is crucial, what can in-house lawyers and the legal department do? Here we go again: they can, precisely, work to build bridges and relationships between the various business units. Different business units have different priorities, but understanding the different priorities helps to improve communication and collaboration. Only then it will be possible to build relationships between the company and the outside world.

When we asked Eyskes how he builds bridges inside and outside his company, he replied that “one of the things I learnt recently is the ability to system thinking. The perspective is the following: we need to learn to think in a different system, to collaborate in a different way, to think more circular than linear. We are the partners of the future for our business. I asked myself: who are we as in house counsel? Whom do we really want to be? We help to shape the way people move. And to do so, we move also based on ESG parameters, where the ‘E’ is largely known (energy and environment); the ‘S’ is connected to the effort of bringing together broader different people into the organisation; and the ‘G’ is connected to governance, justice, the whole normative approach”.

“Our department is called ‘legal service’ for a reason: we try to be legal while providing a service to the institutions we deal with. Before we start regulating (thus before we find the way we want to provide people or economics with regulations), we need to understand WHAT exactly we are regulating. And the only way we can do so is by getting as much information as we can, by creating relationships with stakeholders and discuss with them,” Di Bucci said.

“Doing business,” Eyskes said again, “is about trust and integrity. Trust is why people work with you, buy from you, invest in you, stay with you. So, it doesn’t matter how liquid your organisation is, how scattered around the world your workers are. In the end it is about working together and building trust. I create bridges by optimising our processes, letting everyone contribute and take responsibility. If you can create the right environment where people really feel part of the team, you are ready to face many challenges”.

According to Sawhney, “the more you find that external colleagues and clients look to you for answers, the more you feel that you are a good consultant. And to be a good counsellor you have to be able to identify the risk, have a mitigation plan and inform the company of all the consequences of any action taken as legal director. In this way, as a legal director you also become a business partner. In fact, I believe that what companies appreciate is precisely this: to be prepared for any kind of effect, no matter how negative. And that is what we call resilience”.