The strategic role of in-house counsel

  • Mark Cockerill
  • Culture
  • Solutions
  • 2020
June 23, 2020

The strategic role of in-house counsel

Grasping the full scale and opportunity of ServiceNow, which spans from Santa Clara to Sydney and everywhere in between, can take a while. I’ve been an in-house lawyer for large companies involved in transformational change and corporate acquisitions, but nothing really compares to the size of the task at ServiceNow.

Determining the best ways to support this company through a period of sustained international growth has been a fascinating and satisfying challenge in its own right. Doing so during a global pandemic, as we all work together through lockdowns around the world, is unprecedented.

In the current global environment, we all know so many people, families, companies, and industries that are staring at a long uphill road. I’m proud to be part of the team that will be devising solutions to the challenges ahead, with the leadership and support of our general counsel, Russ Elmer.

I know what you're thinking: “Hang on, Mark—lawyers solve things? I thought all you did was say no.” Indeed, no is often the easiest thing for a lawyer to say. Nowadays, however, legal teams embrace a far broader set of responses to ensure our companies are compliant with the complex and diverse regulatory frameworks in which they operate.

To truly support the business in achieving its goals, we must position and demonstrate legal as a key enhancer of business, rather than an inhibitor. We must find solutions and balance risk, especially in the extraordinary current global environment.

Brake or clutch?
Mark McCormack, founder of the International Management Group, said a good in-house counsel should act like brakes on a car: there when you need them and able to provide just the right amount of resistance to fit the situation. Provide too little, and the car goes out of control. Too much, and you lose momentum.

Allow me to offer my own analogy, which is that lawyers are like the clutch of a car: You need us to not only start the car and move it forward but also to select the right level of engagement to fit the circumstances. You need high gears for the motorway. Sometimes you need second gear to get the organization over a steep hill. And occasionally, you need reverse to help the company pivot.

A role in transition
Increasingly, the role of  in-house counsel is becoming more strategic. It’s about working as a partner to the business, which requires understanding commercial realities and business needs.

As lawyers, understanding what the business needs is just the beginning. We must then do the hard work of shaping the proper pursuit of those needs. We can’t fall into the second-easiest trap for a lawyer, which is to just say yes. Yes, after all, may not be what the business requires. In certain situations, it could even constitute a dereliction of our legal obligations.

At ServiceNow, the legal team is fully integrated with the business, with its purpose, and culture. I can genuinely say this is the most invigorating environment I’ve ever experienced and includes some of the brightest people I’ve ever met.

There are days when I speak to colleagues or outside executives on five continents —listening, understanding, and working out tailor-made solutions for them and the organization. Plans for 2021 and 2022 are already underway, with a collective commitment to growing the business in the most scalable, responsible and strategically sound way possible.

An increasing number of in-house counsels are taking on similar challenges. It’s extremely gratifying to be at the forefront of that shift at ServiceNow, delivering digitially transformed experiences for employees and using our technology and expertise to help people return to the workplace safely and securely.

ServiceNow does make the world of work, work better for people. Sometimes that means  helping the world get back to work. The legal team needs to be as much a part of that process as every other function in the business.

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