Setting the stage at the recently held CEE Legal Matters GC Summit in Istanbul, top-tier legal professionals at prominent companies and law firms alike – from across CEE and beyond – shared their insights on what General Counsels must have in their toolbox to guarantee the delivery of high-quality work. Specifically, the experts considered the importance of the GC role as a trusted advisor, getting the most out of negotiations, and the specifics of client service from a GC perspective.
General Counsel: The Trusted Advisor
In recent years, the role of the General Counsel has evolved from that of a legal advisor to one that more closely resembles a strategic business partner. The level at which GCs are intertwined with not only daily tasks but overall business strategies and the decision-making process is increasing exponentially and, given that fact, all in-house legal staff should be cognizant of what it takes to be a trusted advisor.
A panel of experts including J&T Finance Group’s Marian Husar, Visa’s Basak Gurbuz, Siemens’ Bige Yucel, and Turcas Petrol’s Eda Yuksel discussed this very matter, highlighting the importance of GCs in creating practical solutions for their company.
The experts agreed that GCs need to understand the business issues of the company and provide practical advice while emphasizing the importance of balancing the legal and business aspects of the company’s operations. “In the past, GCs were seen as barriers or creators of unnecessary procedures,” Yuksel said. “However, with the increasing legal acumen and multifaceted mindsets of the leadership teams, the importance of the GC has grown. To be effective in their role, GCs need to be team players and understand why the company is seeking legal advice.”
The panelists also highlighted the importance of communicating in simple language and often putting themselves in the shoes of the counterparty. “GCs need to work closely with the business department of the company – the legal team is not just a support function but a critical part of the governance structure,” Yucel underscored. The panelists further emphasized the need for GCs to understand the business and its commercial angles – which is precisely the aspect that highlights the shift to a strategic business position.
Furthermore, the panel stressed the need for sincerity and continuous learning in the digital age. “Legal professionals need to be open to digitalization and AI to keep up with the market’s future, but I do not believe that AI can replace legal professionals in any way whatsoever. We need to be open to using them as support tools,” Gurbuz said. “During hiring, interviewers may think of asking candidates about their openness to AI and digitalization as well as their openness to learning new things and their level of curiosity.”
Gurbuz went on to add that “learning is a lifetime matter, and GCs need to merge their legal capabilities with technical ones, as digital products are becoming increasingly important. Therefore, GCs need to be alert, practical, and solution-oriented, and technology can help them perfectly.”
In terms of personal development, the panelists all agreed that GCs should balance deepening their knowledge of legal issues and expanding their knowledge in other areas such as business, financials, and technology. “GCs need to be versatile and have a multifaceted mindset to be effective in their role as a strategic business partner,” Yucel stressed.
Getting the Most out of Negotiations
From the position of a trusted advisor, GCs – or any legal professional, for that matter – often find themselves engaging in negotiations. Delving deep into what makes a negotiation toolbox effective, Slaughter and May Partner Richard Jones shared his insights.
“Negotiation is a crucial skill in various aspects of life, from business deals to personal relationships,” Jones said at the GC Summit. “An important initial step in negotiation is to define your objectives clearly and identify your ‘red lines’. It can also be helpful to consider possible acceptable alternatives to your preferred solutions, in order to offer your counterparty options.” He stressed that, in general, “being open and friendly, while firmly communicating you are not a pushover, will assist in advancing your objectives during negotiations whilst also moving matters forward efficiently.”
While active communication is important, Jones also stressed the importance of active listening. “Asking open questions to prompt the other party to provide more information and explain their position can assist in understanding the other party’s objectives, help prevent misunderstandings, and provide additional insights which may assist you in achieving your objectives”.
He also covered the importance of creating a connection with the other side. “Taking steps to build a rapport is an important strategy that leads to building much-needed trust,” he said. “Establishing a connection requires finding common ground and interests, even if the negotiations don’t necessitate a long-term relationship.” On the flip side, he advises caution when dealing with disingenuous counterparties while underscoring that “trust-building takes time and effort.”
In addition to covering some negotiation techniques, Jones also discussed the different ways in which persuasion can be used to bring someone round to your position. “Persuasion can be achieved on an emotional and intellectual level alike – meaning that it is important to be cognizant of both methods,” he said.
Finally, Jones indicated the crucial importance of problem-solving skills and the willingness to compromise for successful negotiations. “It is quite important to be seen as a problem solver rather than a roadblock in these situations, while not compromising too much, however. Remember to always have clean and clear boundaries, and ideally have an alternative solution ready in case negotiations fail, in order to give yourself options.”
Client Service from a GC Perspective
Flipping the script somewhat, Energo Pro General Counsel Christian Blatchford shared his thoughts and experiences on client service – from a GC perspective. Blatchford provided the GC Summit attendees with his experiences of working with external lawyers and shared what GCs appreciate – and what they don’t take kindly to.
“It is important for lawyers who are bidding for work to think about the scope of work ahead,” Blatchford began. “This means, as a must, responding to specific requests for information set out in the RFP. If the lawyer wants to add value, they can offer something more, like pointing out a different or better way to approach a problem based on local law or practice.” According to him, the engagement letter signed with the selected firm should be “short and sweet, not going overboard in regulating the relationship in advance. Mutual trust, respect, and professionalism are more important than pages of assumptions.”
Moreover, Blatchford highlighted how important deadlines are in legal work. “As an external lawyer, please do deliver your work on time. We in-house lawyers understand that drafting, research, and internal discussions take time, but once the deadline is agreed it must be respected in order to avoid frustrations and possible delays on the client side.” Speaking of frustrations, Blatchford concludes by saying that it is always “good to keep emotions under control when working with other lawyers, especially when the clients in the room are trying to build a business relationship together.”