Women in Business Law forum 2019: key takeaways

Author: IFLR Correspondent | Published: 19 Jun 2019
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By Alice Tchernookova

The road to general counsel

Being an in-house lawyers means understanding the needs of your business, becoming an expert in your field, and helping clients identify risks they may have otherwise overlooked. It is generally helpful to have a passion for the industry you’re operating in, as you’ll naturally be willing to get more involved;

As a general counsel (GC), you need to be combining a whole range of skills – the more the better. You need to be asking yourself how you’re going to close the gaps, and get to a position where you have a complete set of abilities, with some of them going beyond your regular GC role. That’s how you become truly useful to your company;

A number of successful GCs are people who have decided to step out of the legal field for a while and then come back, having extended the scope of their capacities to their own benefit;

Being a GC means having a huge breadth of understanding towards all areas of your business. GCs sometimes do a series of flat moves within the company to deepen and widen their knowledge. Expanding your remit is key, as it will also help you bring the right people onto your team, and increase your credibility;

Being mentored throughout one’s career, whether via targeted programmes or informally, is also very important, as well as maintaining good peer-to-peer relationships to support each other through challenges;

Knowing your audience, knowing how people like to communicate within your company, and building a human relationship with your client will help to get your message across more effectively;

Self-promotion and networking inside and out of your organisation should also be an essential part of your job, although you should always stay true to yourself in doing so.

Developing your leadership style

Broadly speaking there are six distinct leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, coaching, strategic, transformational and egalitarian. A leadership style is often reflective of one’s path and progression throughout their career and personal life;

It is a good idea to be involved in as many things as you can, inside and out of your company (e.g.: courses, conferences, trainings, etc.) that will help shape your style. Always look out for opportunities that will help you develop and grow;

Always be cognisant of the fact that as a leader, people will observe you and analyse your behaviour. A good leadership style always comes back to two things: being consistent and being authentic;

One needs to be adaptable and flexible according to the issues and situations that arise (situational leadership). Self-awareness is also important, as the more understanding of your own self and others you have, the more efficiently you will communicate;

Every message you put across as a GC has to come from a place of trust. This means you need to clarify what it is you are trying to achieve, and have a purposeful approach. You should also ask yourself how your interlocutor will feel after the conversation you have with them;

One should generally try and connect with the human side of things as much as possible, rather than just take on a corporate persona. Ask yourself: is this how I would act on a daily basis, outside of work?;

As a leader, you cannot ignore the person you are. It is more difficult to try not to be yourself, than to just own yourself and your emotions. Put your own personality and style into the way you deliver your message;

Finally, tolerance is paramount to a healthy work environment. It is good to be able to observe without judgement, and be receptive to diverse behaviours and expectations. The ability to accept those disparities between individuals and to deal with them effectively is what distinguishes a good company culture.

Fail forward

"We are all recovering volcanoes", according to a panellist. It’s about having the courage to recognise that sometimes, we may be unable to deal with something. There can be success in the simple fact of recognising that something just isn’t working;

We sometimes become paralysed by our own fear, letting it stop us from moving forward and hinder our progression;

Our definition of failure can sometimes be flawed. Some people might be seeing something as a failure, while for you it might be an opportunity;

The idea of a linear career path and a five-year plan is no longer relevant nor manageable. One has to be agile;

It isn’t necessarily about having a plan per se, but about asking yourself regularly: How can I become a better version of myself? You may set certain goals, but you have to be flexible as to how you will get there. Otherwise, you are likely to experience failure in a very negative way;

Comparison is the thief of joy. Do not compare yourself to others – what is your identity, what is your brand?  The one thing we all have in common is that we’re all different;

We tend to think more about "I ought to do this", rather than "I want to do this". We are often so focused on what we want to achieve that we do not take the time to appreciate where we are now. Challenging yourself is good, but it shouldn’t be taken to an extreme and make us feel restless;

Every role or situation can be seen as a learning opportunity rather than a failure, and you have to keep trusting that you have ended up in a given situation for a reason. Think of the longer term game: the ability to take a step back, analyse what has happened and learn from it makes you a valuable asset;

In an environment as competitive and demanding as the legal industry, people can easily get affected by impostor syndrome. Relativity can be destructive: the key is to make the right comparisons;

Men and women also tend to approach failure in a different manner, according to studies: while women internalise it and attach it to a feeling of guilt, men tend to look for its reasons outside of themselves. Having a "I gave it my best shot, I can’t control what’s outside of me" approach is a much healthier way of dealing with issues. The more you separate the person from the event, the more resilient you become;

Remember: failure isn’t about not getting the goal you intended to reach – it’s about not taking the risk. Not trying means you are missing an opportunity to learn something new: the more you try, the more you are likely to succeed. Equally, having a company culture in which failure is allowed and encouraged (typically in an entrepreneurial context) can have a positive impact;

No matter how prepared or experienced you are, you are still likely to make a mistake at some point. The important thing is not the mistake itself, but the way you react to it, and how people will perceive you on the other side: if you show that you have a plan and know how to get everyone out of this, you will be trusted.

Navigating a crisis

The first thing to know is the sort of crisis that your business could be exposed to. You need to understand that before your clients. Knowing that should give you a lot of information on which areas of the business need extra support. Make sure you plan ahead;

Having the right people on your team determines whether the crisis will effectively be solved. Crisis simulation can be very helpful too, while maintaining a good relationship with all parts of the business will facilitate communication in critical moments;

Do not jump to hasty conclusions before knowing the facts. Make sure nothing goes out before the legal team checks it. Preserve confidentiality by all means. You are essentially the business’s eyes and ears: keep records of everything;

Company culture plays a key role in crisis management: make sure that everything in the company from a moral and legal point of view is clear and be consistent in your approach;

Communication is where legal advice sits: the more you give people the feeling that they are all on the same journey as you, the more likely you are to succeed.

Working with your male peers to overcome unconscious bias

The question is: why does it matter? Because unconscious bias can lead to major problems, such as pay inequity or people being recruited on a wrong basis, which in turn creates teams on which everyone has a similar view of life, and decisions are taken without the breadth of vision and experience needed;

The concept of "unconscious validation" also exists, and it consists of trying desperately to fit into a box or category, and emulate the behaviour of others around to try and gain a similar credibility or respect. But we are all unique;

It is not enough for men to simply recognise the challenges women face: they need to be involved, and perform demonstrative acts of support in front of others. Meanwhile, a dialogue should also exist with male peers who may feel threatened by the positive actions made for women.

Working with your male peers to overcome unconscious bias

While the gender pay gap still exists, a more pressing issue exits with bonus gaps, which tend to be distributed in a more arbitrary manner as they are discretionary. It is in fact common for such gaps to be much wider than pay gaps;

Bonus gaps should be systematically reported. According to a panellist, this is the biggest single issue that could improve one’s company culture if handled correctly. Advice to managers: if you do distribute bonuses in your company, think hard about who you are rewarding, and on what basis;

In the asset management industry, there is often a big difference between front, middle and back office pay, with far fewer female C-suite and portfolio managers. A panellist suggested that managers could start rewarding portfolios based on their active risk-taking, thereby encouraging women do so;

Unconscious bias training has had a positive impact. We cannot change the way people think, but we can make a difference in the way practices are structured and implemented.

Solving the work/life balance conundrum

Having a good work/life balance is very much about personal choices as to what works for you. You have to be clear about what that balance means to you, and create the lifestyle that makes you happy;

The idea of being "on" and available at all times isn’t usually a good thing. You need to set your own rules and limits and be strict with them;

While there is a risk in never switching off properly, being flexible can work if it is respected on both ends. If you are open to sometimes doing certain things off the terms of your contract, then your manager will also be more likely to grant you permission on others. It’s all about give and take;

Women are often afraid of choosing to work part-time because they think they will be judged or resented for it, but that is usually a misconception. Nowadays, women who work part-time still manage to have stellar careers and manage a full team of lawyers;

Women are often terrible at finding time for themselves, and are the ones putting the most pressure on themselves. There is a need to lower one’s standards and expectations, and get priorities right;

A better society is a society in which choices are not all black or white, but where we find creative ways to solve things. The legal profession as a whole should lend itself to more flexible arrangements, as most of the time, it does not matter in which location lawyers do their jobs;

A lot of studies tell us that in future, we should be working less hours, and with an increased flexibility. Lawyers should be at the forefront of that change, embody it, advocate it, and think creatively.