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A priceless partnership: CEOs and their Chief Legal Officer

Relationships. They’re not always easy. Navigating the push and pull of time and energy between people can be tricky. Yet, when relationships thrive, they are worth all the effort.  Business relationships are no different and fostering a good relationship between Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Legal Officer (CLO) has the potential to shape a business for success as leadership and legal oversight align. 

Before we delve deeper, let’s clarify the difference between a CLO and General Counsel (GC). Essentially, the CLO embodies the role and duties a GC has always undertaken, providing legal depth and direction for the in-house team. But that is only one part of the job. The CLO has a broader remit, is required to be across multiple business units, and therefore needs to be more than just a legal expert. They must possess a deep understanding of their organization’s people and product and have business acumen. 

The role of Shaun Plant, Chief Legal Officer of LawVu, is varied. He handles operational compliance and the risk mitigation that comes legal’s way and works closely with the data and security team on privacy issues. He works with the product team on risks involved with contracts and processes and with the marketing team on risk. He also provides input to growing a legal tech start-up. 

“It's about delivering added value to the organization,” he says. “It isn't just turning around a contract in a certain time, it's providing those other skills that you have an interest in so you can help the teams grow.”

Sam Kidd, co-founder and CEO of LawVu, never had an opportunity to work with a CLO in his previous roles, because he hadn’t worked in companies of a scale where a CLO was necessary. However, since founding LawVu he’s come to realize that the role of the CLO is so integral to the success of the business that he can’t imagine starting another company without one. “The CLO role is a hire I’d make sooner rather than later because of the power it brings to negotiating with large clients,” he says. 

As CEO, it was Kidd’s job to create the optimal C-suite for LawVu to succeed, which is why Plant was one of his original hires. “He’s a unicorn because of his project management experience.” 

Plant has an MSc in Project Management and was the New Zealand College of Law’s trainer in project management for seven years. Upon joining LawVu, he immediately implemented the setting up of templates and processes while also constantly querying how LawVu could make things easier for employees and clients to do their best work. Which is why LawVu has such a sophisticated legal operations setup. 

This comes as no surprise, because although Plant is CLO, he’s also a client. He uses LawVu software to make his work visible, effective, and efficient, and placing his legal department exactly where he believes it should be - at the heart of the business.

As legal professionals, we know what it takes to be a great lawyer: a combination of intelligence, analytical and advocacy skills, and impeccable communication skills. To be an excellent CLO you have to have all these attributes and a vision. 

Kidd believes Plant has always been visionary. “We found Shaun on LinkedIn. We reached out and asked him, ‘Are we mental or does this make sense?’ and he had the vision to see something worthwhile on the A3 sheets of paper we brought to the meeting.” 

In six years, Plant has become the linchpin of the company. According to Kidd, he is an expert in domain expertise and brings huge value to the company because of how quickly he can turn things out and around. “Shaun has a tremendous understanding of LawVu, and our best interests are at the heart of everything he does.” 

But, as with any relationship, things aren’t always perfect. As we all know, we often butt heads with the people we trust the most. Kidd says there needs to be a level of healthy tension for the synergy of the two roles to work best. In his opinion, “If there’s no tension, you’re not trying hard enough.” 

This tension can only be productive if the foundation of the CLO and CEO’s relationship is one of trust, allowing the two to work together with confidence in their disagreements and resolutions. Plant says a fruitful relationship is built upon “being honest, and being as transparent as you can be. Calling things as they are. That’s the nature of the relationship we have, and if either of us annoys each other, we'll say so”.

The CLO has to run the function like a Chief. It’s a role that’s as fundamental as Chief Operating Officer, Chief Product Officer, etc. Kidd says: “Executive meetings happen every week, and in those meetings Shaun operates as a GC because he’s on the tools. “However, we’re setting a precedent making him Chief Legal Officer because he’s at the strategic level.” 

Essentially, the CLO role is an integral part of the story scaling companies like LawVu are telling in the hope of inspiring other C-suites and companies to do the same. Because LawVu started as a small team of key players, it was natural for the CLO to be a core team member right away. The role is anything but easy, and striking a balance between strategist, catalyst, guardian and operator isn’t for the faint of heart. There are a lot of hats to wear and much juggling and context switching to do on a daily, if not hourly, basis. 

Plant’s biggest challenge is not just the volume of work but also its variety - which also happens to be the most interesting part of the role. “There’s a lot of code switching and of course everything is always ‘Can we have it today?’” he says. Sound familiar?

The synergy between the roles of CEO and CLO is what gives a company a holistic view of what’s happening at any given time. Kidd regards Plant as his main advisor or the “angel on his shoulder”. The CLO always has defense in mind whereas the CEO role is about attack. To be an indispensable CLO you need a different sort of toolkit than a GC. For Kidd, this means having a clear head, empathy for the business, and a deep understanding of how it operates. “A CLO needs to understand the strategy of the company and know when to let things go. Interpersonal skills and the ability to multitask and juggle priorities are key.” 

In other words, a good CLO knows exactly what a CEO needs to achieve and what ride they’re on. Typically, this means understanding what risks are involved, being aware of the obligations, and knowing when and what to push back on during negotiations. 

This is precisely why an increasing number of companies are looking to implement this significant role in their C-suites. In recent years, it’s become much more common to see a Chief Legal Officer on executive teams and boards. “If a company is moving offshore or doing lots of sales contracts, a CLO is absolutely necessary,” says Kidd. “These days you’ve got the chance to be global overnight. A CLO will protect your names, sort the ts and cs, and keep you safe.

The role of the GC will eventually phase out as it becomes redundant in the modern workforce. The reality is that the demands of modern business, clients, and organizations requires a senior legal person who is involved in all areas of the business and not just operating in a legal silo.

Plant says: “You’ve got these old alternative legal service providers coming in who are still doing the same work, but they have a slightly different way of operating. It takes time for that kind of transition, you're still going to have your old school GCs, but I think there's going to be a movement towards those lawyers who take on those roles and who have broader interests than just things that the GC might want to cover.”

This isn’t what most lawyers trained for. The legal profession hasn’t changed hugely in hundreds of years. Schools of thought around the T-Shaped Lawyer, the O-Shaped Lawyer and the Delta Lawyer are cropping up in the everyday legal vernacular as more legal professionals realize that the future needs lawyers with multi-disciplinary skill sets that sit outside of the law. 

Plant believes it is his project management background and not his legal experience that enables him to succeed in the CLO role. For him, the job is about understanding what it is he needs to do, planning what needs to happen, and helping teams do what they need to do to get the business in a good position. His patience, pragmatism and sense of humor are his best attributes and what he uses to “cut through the fluff”. 

“There’s a lot of noise within an organization, and the CLO’s job isn’t just giving legal advice but understanding the business challenges and being part of the solution,” he says. That’s in addition to everything else that’s on their plate at the same time. 

It begs the question, must a CEO put a lawyer in a CLO position? As it’s a role that’s more business than law-focused, will people be more creative in their hiring? Legal depth will always be critical to a legal role, but a lawyer who is also adept in business, technology or communications skills is far better placed to succeed in a CLO role.

“All of the change that’s happening in the legal industry is happening in corporate,” says Kidd. “In a law firm, you’re a rainmaker. In a business, you’re a cost centre, so you have to be more efficient.” Efficiency comes with systems and processes and a CLO who is innovative in the technologies they embrace to optimize workflow.

Ultimately, the common purview that a CLO brings to a company is what makes the role so critical, especially when scaling. Knowing Plant has oversight of everything at LawVu gives Kidd peace of mind: “I don’t even have to think about it, because I know he’s there; he’s across everything. I never take for granted how lucky we are.” 

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