The view from the client’s side

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Going through the stack of materials from my recent week of conferences, I was re-reading the notes I took at the Opening Plenary of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s Spring Conference in Toronto, and thought you might be interested in some highlights from what was really a riveting panel discussion. The panelists, who offered valuable perspective on evolving client concerns and trends on the in-house side of the ledger, were:

  • Roger Fulton, EVP and GC of Canada’s Linamar Corporation,
  • Brad Brubaker Sr., SVP and GC of SAP America,
  • Ralph Ybema, President of the Hong Kong Corporate Counsel Association,
  • Peter Turner, CEO and GC of the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association, and
  • David McFadden, partner, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, Toronto (chair).

Economic trends: North Americans Fulton and Brubaker spoke, as you might expect, about the anticipated impact of the recession, though they also pointed out that an economic downturn is a great time to locate and pounce on opportunities, including more efficient and better supply terms. Ybema and Turner, however, noted that in the Southern Hemisphere, the talk is not on recession but on China’s boiling economy, which has a far greater impact in that region. It’s easy to forget, wrapped up in our little bubble here in N.A., that the weather isn’t the same everywhere.

Litigation: As the recession gathers speed, legal departments can anticipate the usual uptick in litigation, especially on IP issues and with suppliers who are struggling to meet contractual obligations. In Asia, arbitration is strongly preferred for resolving disputes; Ybema noted that starting a lawsuit is an excellent way to end a business relationship there. Brubaker quipped, however, that in the U.S., litigation is often a good way to start one.

Risk management: All the panelists emphasized the importance of good, trusted personnel on the ground as a critical factor in good risk management. SAP manages risk in four steps: identify, quantify, prioritize and manage, but a “bottom-up” assessment process is also important. Brubaker noted that SAP workers in India were having problems getting to work, so the company set up an informal shuttle system; traditional RM tools would never have uncovered this. Fulton cited Toyota’s “go and see” policy to meet people and build relationships to improve risk management. Companies must be able to take risks, not simply avoid them: Legal’s job is to assess risk probability, and to offer unpopular opinions when necessary while still remaining a trusted strategic advisor.

In-house careers: Lawyers are becoming more involved in corporate decision-making, in part because most are fully integrated into the overall business strategy in terms of compliance, management and government relations. That’s terrific, except that successors to the GC position are becoming harder to find. Younger members of the department often leave, sometimes to run other departments with line function responsibility such as pensions or risk management, and sometimes because the high risk and heavy workload of the GC position can make it a less attractive position (the average tenure of GCs has dropped from 20 years to around four). Backgrounds in litigation or government relations have become as important as corporate experience when looking for GC positions.

There were all sorts of other interesting observations, especially about doing business in China — it would certainly be worth any law firm lawyer’s time to hear what these corporate counsel had to say. My impression is that too many firm lawyers attend these sorts of in-house counsel gatherings planning to talk, to create a marketing opportunity for their practices. Not enough, I think, go to these events to listen, gain the client’s perspective, and learn about what’s occupying his or her thoughts these days. Those who do will find themselves a serious step ahead of the competition.

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