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Lawyers 'need business experience'

Posted by: Laurence Simons 22/10/13

Corporate counsel keen to get a boardroom role need to pick up as much business experience as possible, even if this happens in a non-legal environment, an expert has suggested.

United Biscuits chief executive Martin Glenn, formerly head of PepsiCo in UK and Ireland, made his comments at Legal Week's Corporate Counsel Forum last month.

"The challenge is that the lack of cross-functional experience counts against general counsel's in getting to the chief executive officer level," said Mr Glenn, possibly while consulting his Big Book of Business Words.

There has been an increasing tendency for businesses to look to legal expertise at the top level in recent years, with the complications involved in moving into international markets making this kind of knowledge crucial.

Furthermore, the growing credence given to corporate governance means lawyers can offer a good perspective on how companies can expand without stepping on any toes.

However, Mr Glenn feels general counsel need to do more to prove they are capable of taking on this level of corporate responsibility.

"Occasionally go out with a sales rep and find out what it's like in their markets, or go to a factory and find out how they are handling legal disputes with colleagues," he advised.

He added that there appears to be more appetite among US general counsel for getting out of the ivory tower and engaging with business demands, thus making them more suitable for top-tier positions within the corporate world.

Finally, he urged GCs not to simply give their chief executive officers what they want to hear, instead acting as challenging force that stands up for what they consider to be the right approach and stops firms from falling into corporate governance or regulatory failures.

This follows research from legal outsourcing group Obelisk which found only 24 per cent of FTSE 350 lawyers speak another language, despite the efforts many of their company's are making to move into emerging markets.

While English remains the lingua franca for most business transactions, this lack of language skills could be stopping general counsel from forming close relationships with foreign counterparts, the firm argued.