Top female GCs shared insights at DLA Piper's Women's Summit

By Lisa Haile, Ph.D., partner at DLA Piper and Chairperson of the 2016 summit

Protecting the company from increasingly sophisticated hackers. Managing a government raid in a foreign office. Responding to a potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violation. Protecting a company's reputation in the face of labor violations. Dealing with a whistleblower leaking privileged information.

These are only a sampling of the issues facing today's global general counsel, whose responsibilities have come to extend beyond borders – and far beyond the legal department. The forces propelling these changes, and their repercussions for the role of the GC, drove a series of lively and thought-provoking discussions among the more than 230 female GCs and senior in-house lawyers who attended DLA Piper's fourth Global Women's Leadership Summit, held on September 19-20, 2016 in Chicago.

The keynote speakers were three women who have reached the pinnacle of success in traditionally male-dominated professions – Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments, Monica Crowley of Fox News and The Washington Times and Molly Fletcher, CEO of The Molly Fletcher Company. They shared insights on what it means to be an effective, exceptional leader in an age of rapid globalization and relentless competition, focusing on three key traits: willingness to embrace change and risk, humility and the ability to build trust.

The panelists – who included GCs from Fortune 500 companies in a range of industries – discussed how their roles have changed in a global economy and they exchanged tips for effectively leading, innovating and mitigating risk in today's business world. And while the conversations often raised as many questions as they did answers, a few best practices emerged.

1. View yourself as a core member of the corporate management team

GCs are no longer valued solely for legal advice. Boards of directors and management teams rely on in-house lawyers' ability to paint the bigger business picture, including identifying their companies' differentiators and vulnerabilities, and to provide insight on issues that advance companies broader business goals.

Several speakers noted that by establishing themselves as trusted advisors to the board of directors and C-suite, they increasingly find themselves in the room when decisions are made, rather than being asked to fix problems after the fact.

Leadership also expects GCs to ascertain which risks are worth taking from a business perspective, not just which are legally problematic. As one of our speakers put it, GCs are no longer viewed as "business stoppers," but "business enablers."

2. Managing cybersecurity risk is a top priority

An onsite poll of attendees found that, not surprisingly, data privacy and protection is the issue most likely to keep GCs up at night. Protecting against sophisticated hackers is a top corporate priority across every industry and organization. Our cybersecurity panel revealed a host of cyber-related issues at the top of GCs' priority lists, including: deciding whether to proactively engage with regulators prior to an incident; keeping the board informed on potential risks and safeguards in place; developing an effective cybersecurity program; and engaging employees, contractors, vendors and others to help identify vulnerabilities.

3. The risk of not innovating is greater than remaining static

While the notion that the GC's primary job is to manage risk and protect the core business permeated the entire event, much of the discussion also centered on the new reality that in-house lawyers are increasingly engaged in their company's innovation initiatives. Another onsite poll of attendees revealed that 51% are "very involved" in such efforts.

To help nurture ingenuity in their companies, GCs must possess a deep understanding of not only the law, but of customer needs, competitive landscapes and business opportunities. A GC can speed up change and innovation by streamlining processes in the legal department — removing friction by getting agreements approved faster, for instance. They can also be a valuable conduit for outside perspective, tapping their relationships with consultants and outside counsel to help ensure decisions are informed by a diversity of viewpoints.

4. Create a culture of compliance and integrity

GCs also play a critical role in building a culture of compliance within their organizations. Ensuring that compliance policies and programs create an environment where employees feel comfortable coming forward with concerns or reporting potential misconduct is critical to mitigating legal risks and regulatory action, and to creating an open and positive work environment.

The GC also plays a leading role in creating a culture of integrity. Whether responding to a crisis or advising on a new product or venture, today's GC routinely works alongside business leaders and boards to protect their organization's reputation capital.

The conference was hosted by DLA Piper's Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW), an initiative the firm launched in 2006 to support women lawyers through internal networking, developing leadership skills and creating business development opportunities. LAW has long been focused on advancing female lawyers within DLA Piper and it has been an honor to provide the female leaders among our clients with a forum to share stories and ideas about the shifting legal-services landscape and their evolving roles in it. We look forward to continuing the important dialogue surrounding the event and to seeing everyone at the next summit.