Insights in to successful female GCs - their past, present and future thoughts on the challenge of being a female GC.... by Victoria Moore – senior associate in the BCL Legal Midlands in-house team...

As part of our “value add” offerings to the in-house legal community, the Midlands in-house recruitment team at BCL Legal hosted a seminar with DLA Piper in Birmingham which was the first in a series of events shaped by and specifically for female in-house lawyers.

The purpose of the event was to showcase high-profile female general counsel and business leaders from different industries, who together discussed the concepts of leadership, success and career development within the in-house legal function. The event was chaired by Sandra Wallace (UK head of employment, DLA Piper UK LLP) and included an all female panel consisting of Olivia Broderick (principal legal counsel, Barclaycard), Vanessa French (general counsel, Wolseley UK) and Clare Woolley (senior legal counsel, RAC). Each has proved themselves to be a successful leader in their field with a unique story to tell.

The panellists shared their stories of how they got to where they are today, what obstacles they overcame, and key lessons learnt along the way – including sharing advice that they wished they’d received when they started climbing the corporate ladder.

Other topics that were discussed included:
• What will the leaders of tomorrow look like and how will the role of the GC evolve?
• What are the top 5 skills you need in an increasingly competitive and demanding business environment?
• Is there truly a “glass ceiling” – fact or fiction? And
• What strategies can you put in place in order to move ‘up’ or ‘across’?
The conclusions the panel reached are as follows:

What will the leaders of tomorrow look like and how will the role of the GC evolve?
As an overview, the panel felt that GCs tend to think the main opportunities for the in-house legal function to make a major commercial impact over the next two or three years lay either in possible major strategic transactions (M&A, JVs, IPOs) or in dealing with the impact of regulation. In addition to this, opportunities would also come from being more involved in commercial decisions, managing their panel firms better, or preventing litigation. Specifically:
• The future GC will need to be integral to the business, sit on boards, manage teams and have a wide commercial business role.
• The future GC will increasingly have a political lobbying role whereby they play an integral part in lobbying government and regulators in relation to new legislation.
• Legal issues and regulations are increasing for businesses which will have the effect of a GC moving away from a traditional “pure” legal role to take on a wider remit of legal, risk, compliance and governance issues.
• Legal departments will increasingly be run as a business unit with their own cost centres with a greater emphasis on revenue generating activities (e.g. pro-active litigation) and business processes and outsourcing.

What are the top five skills you need in an increasingly competitive and demanding business environment?
The role of a GC is incredibly varied and encompasses elements such as providing legal advice, identifying and avoiding risk, undertaking company secretarial work, structuring deals, managing external lawyers and managing internal teams. However, the panel explored how GCs in practice demonstrate value. The panellist had differing opinions on the elements that made the top five but the key themes that emerged were around:
1. Communication
2. Alignment to the business
3. Commerciality
4. Judgement
5. Integrity and discretion or leadership and management ability

Specific examples that emerged were: influencing skills, intellectual curiosity, hard work, ability to work out of the comfort zone, resilience, ambition, confidence, financial skills, internal and external networking, bringing things to life - i.e. making dry legal issues interesting, commercial understanding of a business and a good manager who inspires confidence in their team.

Is there truly a “glass ceiling” – fact or fiction?
Overall research identifies that women are underrepresented at a senior management position across industry. Although there is a growing number of women in both senior management and amongst the rank and files, they only hold 15% of the seats on corporate boards in the UK. The panel were keen to explore why this was and if the “glass ceiling” still exists.

There was a strong view amongst the panellists that the glass ceiling is dead as a concept; rather women face multiple barriers to rise to the top. A survey conducted by E&Y of 1,000 working women between the ages of 18 and 23 says there are multiple barriers to career progression. Four key career barriers were identified in the survey that relate to age, lack of role models, motherhood as well as qualifications and experience. The panel also identified that it felt women were perhaps not as good at selling themselves as their male counter parts and this could be a limiting behaviour from a career progression perspective as they would not push for the promotion and recognition in the same way.

What strategies can you put in place in order to move ‘up’ or ‘across’?
A large part of my role involves speaking to individuals (male and female) who are looking to progress their careers. The world of the in-house lawyer is not as structured as in private practice and my advice is that to be successful as an in-house lawyer you need to drive your own career and take advantage of internal and external opportunities to grow and develop. Some of the top tips that came out from the panel were:
• Find role models or mentors
• Don’t shy away from challenges (have courage)
• Network, network, network!
• Understand the business – where does the money come from?
• Choose an organisation where the culture fits your values and follow your passion
• Check that you are in a place where your managers care about developing your career – know why you are there and always plan ahead!
• Identify your strengths and weaknesses and work hard at shoring up those weaknesses
• Always do your best – being a GC is “not for slackers”

It was a fascinating event that showcased what females can achieve in their in-house legal career. I think it is fare to say that women do have different challenges to men in the workplace. However, as Sandra, Olivia, Clare and Vanessa have proved anything is possible!

Oh, and as for the advice that they wished they’d received when they started climbing the corporate ladder – for that you will need to contact me via the link below...!