The broad shoulders of general counsel

If general counsel didn’t already have enough on their plate, the pressure is really on to be the eyes and ears within an organization and be aware of everything that could possibly go wrong. On top of that, the challenge is to blow the whistle loud enough that the right people hear and allow action to be taken.

In light of scandals at General Motors and other places where it has become apparent lawyers knew what was happening but were ignored, it’s become a greater topic of conversation. In September, at an Association of Corporate Counsel event in Toronto, one of the more powerful panel discussions featured Deloitte LLP’s Ken Fredeen telling attendees in blunt terms that their focus should be to get into the trenches, know what’s going on, and be seen and heard across the company. Make yourself known, but don’t get too cozy with any one group. Be the ethical and moral compass of the organization, he told them.

As Cheryl Foy, general counsel at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology,  noted in her presentation at that same conference, “It can be very lonely being a general counsel.” The role requires a lot of integrity and courage.

It’s a hefty job description, especially in small departments where the main focus is handling daily legal matters, let alone sniffing out where problems may be festering and infecting the integrity of the organization.

General counsel are also seeing their titles getting longer as risk management gets piled on their desks, all with an eye to making sure they keep tabs on areas where things can go so horribly wrong. As part of its reorganization in October, Twitter Inc. announced its general counsel would also serve as head of communications for the social media company. It may make a lot of sense for Twitter as the very nature of the company’s platform can get it into countless legal tangles involving the media every day.

Twitter GC Vijaya Gadde isn’t the first to take on the dual role — Nadia Petrolito, general counsel of L’Oreal Canada, has held the added role of chief communications officer for more than a year. It was the first time legal and communications had been combined at the cosmetics giant even though the company is in 150 countries. The Paris head office asked the Canadian team if it was perhaps a conflict of interest. Petrolito acknowledged it could be seen that way, but if managed properly, it would benefit the organization.

Petrolito had been part of the crisis management team, so communications is an extension of that, she said. It “definitely makes you grow when you’re looking at a different aspect of the business like that and you open your mind to different views and different ways of thinking about problems,” she added. “I think as a GC we want to do everything, so we want to get our hands in everything, because we’re dying to be part of the business.”

That would seem to be the prescription for successful in-house counsel these days — in the middle of everything but still fiercely independent.

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