Ever wondered what skills you need to make it as an in-house counsel in 2018? Or are you already working in-house and wondering what the future holds for your career?
As general counsel and company secretary of Nine Entertainment Co. Holding Ltd since 2015, Rachel Launders is widely acknowledged as a positive role model for in-house lawyers, strategically leading a legal team focused on high-value work aligned with core business values.
Formerly a partner at Gilbert + Tobin for 14 years, Rachel knows what it’s like to work in private practice as well as the in-house world. She’s also a Practical Law Australia Advisory Board member and director of Giant Steps, a not-for-profit school for children and young adults with autism, and Gateway Lifestyle Group. In 2017, Rachel was named Corporate Lawyer of the Year at the ACC Australia 2017 Australian In-house Lawyer Awards.
We chatted to Rachel about the attraction and challenge of in-house practice at one of Australia’s most innovative media corporations, what skills today’s in-house lawyers need and how technology can influence the in-house counsel role in 2018 and beyond.
Q: As general counsel and company secretary of Nine Entertainment Co. Holding Ltd, what does your role involve?
A: Well, there’s me plus 11 others, and the work that we do covers the breadth of Nine’s entire business. First, we take care of the visible things that consumers see, like the story that’s going on the news tonight, or the story on 60 Minutes on Sunday, plus what stories we’re putting on our digital platforms. So part of our team will be involved in reviewing this content, advising on issues such as naming an accused or a child, as well as contempt of court and defamation. That part of our team will also be involved with dispute management either arising from broadcast or other commercial activities.
Across the rest of the team, there’s a wide variety of commercial contracting work that can range from acquiring rights to content and commissioning productions such as Married at First Sight to advising on broadcasting infrastructure, HR, property and licensing rights for content to other media companies outside Australia.
Then there’s a range of legal and regulatory compliance matters that go hand in hand with the responsibilities of a publicly listed company, along with buying and selling assets, joint ventures and so on. So it’s quite a wide and varying function across the entire group.
Q: What drew you from being a partner at Gilbert + Tobin into an in-house role as general counsel for Nine?
A: Before I joined Gilbert + Tobin in 1998, I had actually completed a year in-house at EnergyAustralia, and I always had the idea to eventually go back to an in-house role, but it took me a lot longer to get there than I had initially planned, mainly because Gilbert + Tobin was such a great place to work.
I did some work with Nine while at Gilbert + Tobin and I liked the executive team, the legal team and the business, so when they approached me with the prospect of a newly created role, it was a fantastic opportunity to work in a business and with a team I already knew.
Q: What kind of skills do today’s general counsel need?
A: I’ve only been working as general counsel at Nine for three years, but having worked with a lot of different in-house counsels over the course of my career, I think in-house roles are increasingly more interesting because the role is becoming much more strategic.
There’s an increasing trend for in-house counsel to be part of wider strategic thinking around the business, rather than just sitting in a ‘back office’ and giving advice when you’re asked about an issue. So you’re being pushed to be more of a businessperson with legal skills, rather than being a black-letter lawyer.
For anyone who’s new to a general counsel role, I think you need to now be much more forward-looking and commercially minded. You need to understand what your business is doing, where it’s going, and then make sure your legal team is aware of that and aligned with that.
What helps me be more commercially minded and strategic is that apart from being general counsel, I am also a board member and non-executive director for another company, which really helps me have a different perspective and different approach. In my day job, I focus a lot on solving problems, but when I am sitting as a non-executive director, I need to look at a very strategic level of what the business is doing and why, so I need to take off my risk-averse lawyer hat to some extent.
Finally, I also think you need to know how to connect with the wider organisation so that the legal team is a valued, respected and very much included part of the business – something I was very lucky to inherit in my role at Nine.
Q: How do you think in-house counsel can use technology to become more forward-thinking and future-proof their skills?
A: For a lot of businesses, there’s the pressure of boosting profits and reducing costs. So you need to look at smarter ways you can work, and technology can help streamline your workflow and make you more efficient. You can also use technology to build tools so people in the business can ‘self-serve’. For instance, rather than having every contract in the organisation drafted from scratch by a lawyer, you can offer a template with certain key elements that the individual in the business can complete, for low-risk or low-value transactions.
I think part of the challenge for general counsel today is looking at what the team really needs to be focused on to meet the needs of the business and what can be done in a smarter way. I think there’s a role for technology, and tools like Practical Law can help achieve that. So things like automation of contracts, tools that can facilitate businesspeople helping themselves or tools that can just help the legal team work smarter are really valuable.
In order to be more forward-thinking myself, my advisory role with Practical Law helps me keep up to date with all the latest legal technology innovation, products and services. I get quite a lot back from doing that by understanding all the developments in the market.
Q: What are some of the trends and innovations you feel might impact the role of corporate counsel in the future?
A: There’s so much talk around artificial intelligence (AI) and what the opportunities are for legal practice. The first thing many lawyers are worried about is whether they might be replaced by a robot. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. The challenge for lawyers is focusing on what they can do that a computer can’t and ensure that those particular human skills continue to be developed and refined.
I believe harnessing the power of data, in a way that the human brain isn’t able to do, opens up enormous possibilities in legal practice. The first challenge for in-house lawyers is identifying what those opportunities are, and how to harness them. The next challenge is convincing an executive team that it’s worth investing money in and that it can add great value to the business. This issue will continue to be discussed regularly in the industry and at legal conferences – and I think AI in its application in the legal sector will continue to evolve rapidly.