The “T-shaped” General Counsel

Bjarne Tellmann describes the General Counsel of the future, the interaction with innovation and technology and explains why the Greek National Football Team is a perfect example to illustrate the importance of legal teams


Tell us about yourself and your career journey

I have had a somewhat unusual journey. I was born in Paris, grew up in Norway and have lived in many cities, including Cairo, Tokyo, Athens, London, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Frankfurt, Vienna, New York, Stockholm, and Helsinki. At university, I was originally interested in acting and went to theatre school, where I learnt some of the most useful things about myself and communication. I then decided that I could be doing a million other things as well, so I started to double-major in political science and acting and ended up going over to political science. From there, I did a Master degree and ultimately a law degree.

I then started working at White & Case in New York and was sent to work on a Coca-Cola transaction in Sweden (initially a 6 week deal) which, in turn, led to working for Coca-Cola until 2014, when I joined Pearson in New York. In the past 6 years I have worked a lot on modernizing teams, building capabilities and efficiencies, developing culture and focusing not only on the legal, but also the business aspect of leading a legal department. On the 1 st of July I joined GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) as Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Consumer Healthcare Business.

My goal has always been to think of life and career as an adventure. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star” – you have to take risks, never be scared to try new things.

What led you to write your book, “Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel” ?

When I was at Coca-Cola, I was asked by a young lawyer if there was a manual to guide her on how to do her job. That got me into thinking that perhaps there should be a manual. When I got the first General Counsel role, I had the exact same question: where is the manual? How do I do this? What I tried to do was to put a 3-step model together that aims to help structure the organizational aspects of a team.

Teams are critical and essential to success. All complex and challenging tasks are done by teams, not individuals.

Why focus on teams, rather than the General Counsel herself ?  

Teams are critical and essential to success. All complex and challenging tasks are done by teams, not individuals. Think of an orchestra: no matter how good the conductor is, you can’t play a symphony without all the musicians. What the leader does is set the direction, the tone, develop the people – but in the end it’s all about the team. A perfect example is the Greek national football team back in the early 2000’s. They had an amazing coach from Germany, all players worked together in coordination and, even if they were sometimes criticized for not being, perhaps, as fancy as the French, they went by the program, operated like a team and, eventually, won the championship. To me, the coach is what we, lawyers, should be as leaders: never on the field, but ensuring that the team has what it needs to succeed.  It’s about finding diamonds in the rough – that is the job of a leader.

Let’s look more closely at the model you advocate for building a modern legal organization. 

It starts with the “hardware”, i.e. the measurable, structural parts of running a legal department. The hardware is about assessing your core risks and talent, building a team structure around that and allocating work based on risk and value. It is about selecting outside partners and lawyers, optimizing spend, identifying and implementing the right technologies.

Focus then shifts towards what I call the “software”, the less measurable but equally critical components, of culture, talent, leadership skills, diversity and generational context.

The third part of the model is what I describe as the “constants”. The elements to which (together with the hardware and software) the General Counsel must constantly pay attention:  strategic direction and change management, to help people navigate all that change.

To my mind, technology is never a solution in itself. It is a tool that helps you manage a solution.

Of the various factors affecting the legal profession today, I would start by focusing on the “more for less challenge”: the irony of an increased demand for legal services and, at the same time, a shrinking supply of resources.

The increased demand is driven by a number of factors that exist in the market:

  • Regulatory expansion : a rapid growth of regulations and their complexity around the world (in the US for example the number of federal regulations has increased from 10.000 pages in the 1950s to about 200.000 pages today), together with increased penalties for violations.
  • Globalization : the majority of the legal issues have cross-border effects and risks are no longer local.
  • Risk convergence : very few matters entail purely legal risks and the legal department must also consider the non-legal implications (e.g. reputational, economic and political dimensions of risk).

While the above macroeconomic factors increase demand for legal services, corporations are under growing economic pressure – and, of course, the corona virus global outbreak only adds more to this challenge. Companies need to cut spend and the first place to start is legal.

Moving to more positive disruptions that bring opportunities to the legal profession, it is worth mentioning the Innovation Revolution: we have new and innovative ways of delivering legal services, that allow us to be more effective. Before the 2000s the legal services’ value chain was quite unitary: we had a client, with a specific demand, which was met by one provider (a law firm). Today this value chain is coming apart – it’s been broken into ever smaller pieces with each piece being farmed out to the most efficient providers. Law firms are not always responding to the cost-cutting demand and much of the work that used to be performed by them is now becoming unbundled by legal start-ups or shifting in-house. Such an unbundling of the value chain is driven from globalization, offshoring, near-shoring, super-temping (whereby qualified lawyers are involved, through alternative legal service providers, on a project-by-project basis) and subcontracting to smaller law firms and non-law firm specialists.

And what would you say is the role of technology in this? Do you have any “technology rules of the road”?

Bjarne P. Tellmann, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Consumer Healthcare Business GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)

The Innovation Revolution is further driven by the technological disruption providing us with more tools that transform how we work: communication tools (including telecommuting), self-help tools (such as LexisNexis), efficiency tools (e.g. e-discovery and contract management), transparency tools (e.g. e-billing software) and, slowly but surely, AI and machine learning, which will take over more and more of the routine process-level work and drive the human work into a smaller category.

To my mind, technology is never a solution in itself. It is a tool that helps you manage a solution. You should first focus on understanding the processes and the problems that you are trying to solve, before leveraging technology to tackle any deficiencies.

Furthermore, it is important not to focus only on the fancy technology but start with the boring “mousy grey” solutions, such as video conferencing, which has now become critical, in view of the Covid-19 outbreak. People tend to overlook it, but it is actually one of the most powerful tools: it’s free and it allows you to have diverse teams and work globally from anywhere.

And, finally, in a technology upgrade we must also consider change management – in other words, we cannot implement new technology without taking into account the legal team’s adaptability. It is, therefore, essential to start by identifying the purpose for introducing a new tool and then guide the team in leveraging the new technology.

In your view what role should outside partners play in the mix and how do you recommend selecting them ?

Law firms are still indispensable but for a smaller amount of work. The organizational architecture, pyramid structure and partnership model of traditional law firms makes innovation and disruption very difficult for them.

In his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen addressed the following issue: why is it that, in every industry, the dominant player is no longer at the top, when the next generation of technology emerges? And the answer is that innovation happens somewhere very low down the value chain, where new entrants offer low cost solutions that meet the needs of different sets of customers, and as those new solutions become “good enough” for mainstream customers, they move their way slowly up the value pyramid, until they disrupt the solutions offered by the dominant players. The dominant players often retreat up the pyramid, focusing on improving and optimizing their existing high-cost and high-end solutions, thus leaving lots of “white” space to the new entrants.

And this is also the case in Law. Instead of meeting the competition, many law firms are increasingly focusing on the most profitable parts of their core expertise, which means they are retreating further and further into the tip of the pyramid, giving room for alternative legal providers to disrupt the market.

With regard to the selection of outside counsel, it is important to have a structured process, that reflects the company’s needs. Historically, the selection of business partners was based on personal relationships. However, legal services must be procured in the same way that professional buyers procure other raw materials and services for the company. In other words, it is important to have a panel selection (send out RFPs, gather information, structure a review process) and build a professional relationship, on the basis of objective criteria and metrics. Once selected, outside counsels become strategic partners, practically an extension of the legal department.

In your opinion, how will the Covid-19 crisis affect the legal profession? 

The Covid-19 outbreak is accelerating a lot of the trends we saw before.  My guess is that over the next 12-24 months, as this horrible crisis that has hit the world begins to recede in terms of medical challenges, we are going to be left with the economic catastrophe in almost every market. The “more for less” challenge will become more pronounced and the companies are going to increase the pressure on legal departments to cut costs.

There are also other factors that impact the role of GC. In a world of technology, process optimization, culture and organizational capability, the GC needs to be a mini CEO of a legal services business and think like a business person. The GC’s role is much more complicated and I think that Covid-19 is making it even more so. You have to be a strategy expert, communicator, chief ethics officer, diplomat, project manager, technologist, procurement expert, crisis manager. In other words, there is an inherent role overload, which requires GCs to be more innovative and creative. Lawyers today need to be T-shaped, in the sense of a deep functional expert, who is able to connect across other areas, inside and outside of the company. And that is how innovation happens: by combining different disciplines and giving birth to new ideas.

I think that there are three things that motivate a lawyer: autonomy, mastery and meaning.

Not surprisingly, remote working has been brought forward as a result of the lockdown. What would you say are the caveats in terms of productivity? 

At Pearson we have been using videoconferencing for years. We are a very remote company. I personally believe that the only thing that counts is the quality of the output, that work is delivered on time and that clients are satisfied with the result. That mentality is going to accelerate, not just because of Covid-19, but also due to the younger generations’ “rebellion” against having to come to the office and work on a computer, when they could be doing this (perhaps more productively) at home.

Technology will allow us to do our day2day work at home, but there will still be value in the office, as a qualitative space for interactions, meeting people, creating new ideas, working on a document together, negotiating person to person.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the notion of remote working fits every part of the company. In my view, it works really well for the legal profession. But it is very important to regularly measure the quality of the output, keep people honest and hold them accountable. You want people who are mature enough to deliver. I cannot imagine a legal department where you hire professionals but then you have to stand over their desks to make sure they are doing the right thing. That is not what motivates a lawyer. I think that there are three (3) things that motivate a lawyer: autonomy, mastery (that they can be the master of what they do and be recognized for that) and meaning (that what they do is meaningful and that they have a role to play). They decide when it is important to come to the office. Micromanagement is actually counter-productive. Again, it is all about the “software”: values and beliefs, culture that drives talent.

What will the modern GC look like?

As lawyers we tend to neglect the soft skills. Getting your team together and having conversations, building a culture code and core values, on the basis of which the company hires, promotes and fires people. Apart from being a good lawyer, you also have to be curious and have interests outside of the law. People should be rewarded for being curious. Communication skills are also essential, together with emotional intelligence and autonomy. It is also important to identify the sources of leadership and how you influence people, understanding that your power lies in your ability to convince and inspire others and not your position.

So, the key takeaway would be that the GC of the future needs to invest a lot more in their people and culture. Their role as the leader of an organization is to lead, which requires a lot of time, energy and investment in their people. You cannot survive otherwise in a world of mobile talent – you need to attract people and get the best out of them. And, of course, it is not about holding on to people. The biggest source of pride is if your people go on to better things – there is nothing that comes close to the satisfaction of watching people become leaders in their own right somewhere else. That is success. You have to invest in every relationship.

The GC of the future is about people, culture, polishing diamonds in the rough, it is not about yourself.