Top seven must-have skills for the next generation of GCs
“We are more like outfield playersin football than goalkeepers,” says Zhou Qi, general manager of the co-operation and legal affairs department at SAIC Motor Corporation, when describing the changing role of a general counsel.
He is not alone. Most in-house counsel highlight the transformation of their role from that of legal adviser to business partner in recent years, with a deeper involvement in business operations and company strategy.
As the role of an in-house counsel evolves, the skills needed to be a successful general counsel (GC) are changing, too. What are the essential skills that a modern GC must have to stand out?
We reached out to the winners of China Business Law Journal’s in-house awards to find out what they see as the top skills that have helped them along the way.
Without a doubt, solid legal knowledge in theory and practice is the foundation for a GC, but our survey results show some key skills that the next generation of in-house counsel should have.
We compiled a list of the seven most popular answers that contribute to making a successful in-house counsel, presented here in reverse order.
Analytical skills and critical thinking are foundational skills for legal practitioners to see past appearances and understand complex business strategies and legal disputes.
Xu Haifeng, deputy general counsel of Shanghai Construction Group, recognises “strong analytical research ability” as an important skill to success.
So does Jenny Zeng, vice-general manager of the legal and compliance department of Ping An Medical and Healthcare Management. “Systematic and logical thinking and an ability to make structured presentations” are skills that help in-house counsel stand out and stay ahead, says Zeng.
Tong Liping, chief legal officer of Shanghai Electric Group, says the role of an in-house counsel has shifted from that of a “legal service providers, who are collaborators in management” to “project participants, who are structure designers and system builders”.
Xu Haifeng adds: “An In-house counsel’s work has transformed from back-office, administrative and transactional work to the whole process of business management.”
This shift requires a corresponding change of mindset. The idea of being able to “see the big picture” comes up frequently among our survey participants.
Aaron Shao, head of legal for Greater China at Abbott, advocates that “360-degree thinking, planning, and managing capability” is a must-have skill for a modern GC.
The idea of the “big picture” is not limited to the present. Amy Zhang, litigation director of Sina Corporation, says: “We should not only focus on the immediate gains and losses and success or failure, but also use each decision and result to achieve the ultimate goal.”
Feng Xiaoju, general counsel and compliance officer of Saint-Gobain (China) Investment, sums up thus: “[In-house counsel should have] the ability to think out of the box and form a macro picture.”
Translating a company’s macro business strategy into practical solutions is a necessary skill for good legal professionals – keeping your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground. Stuart Lin, senior legal director of Xpeng Motors, says in-house counsel should have “a down-to-earth attitude, not to just pursue a perfect victory on paper, but to try to get things done properly”.
Carrie Yu, head of legal Greater China at H&M, emphasises the ability to solve problems. “Accurately capture business pain points to help [partners] solve problems and achieve their ultimate business goals,” she says.
Cheng Guochuan, chief compliance officer and legal director of Beijing Electric Vehicle, says: “In-house counsel should play a proactive role, always assist the business as a partner, rather than a back-stage functional role with risk awareness. Our team tries to come up with feasible solutions that add value to the business – not just offering advice.”
Su Yunpeng, general counsel of Tsinghua Tongfang, values creativity. “General counsel should be autonomous and innovative, problem-oriented, seek solutions and constantly improve existing systems and mechanisms,” he says.
Co-ordination and management skills are essential for GCs as they not only manage in-house legal and business departments, but also liaise with external lawyers.
“Reduce and break the barriers between departments to achieve efficient co-operation,” advises Yang Qihu, general counsel of Tencent Music Entertainment Group.
Su, of Tsinghua Tongfang, believes in-house counsel should have “good internal and external team business collaboration skills”.
Sun Yanchen, general counsel and chief compliance officer of Beijing Automotive Group, agrees, saying GCs should “be able to co-ordinate with the various departments within the company, and also be able to manage external resources and have high management skills”.
Sherry Zhang, senior legal counsel of Qiming Venture Partners, values her relationships with external experts.
“In recent years, PE/VC industry regulation – including fundraising, investment, IPO filing, and exits – has been changing. As an internal legal counsel, you need to be sensitive enough to the industry rules, and also to maintain internal and external communication at all times for compliance.”
Liu Xiaoying, legal counsel of China Harbour Engineering, adds: “In-house counsel should be familiar with the professional characteristics of external lawyers, and make efficient use of the advantages of the external lawyer team.”
When co-ordinating with different parties, mutual trust is essential. The ability to “generate confidence between the company and the counterparty, and establish trust” is one of the essential skills, says Liu Tiehu, chief legal counsel and head of compliance at Gaw Capital.
As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. This is especially true of the cycle of change in business models, where the only way to seize opportunities and success is to continue to learn and adapt to change.
Winston Zhao, senior vice president and general counsel of Yangtze Memory Technologies (YMTC), advises: “Always keep an open and curious mind, and do not resist new things, new ideas and new concepts.” Yang, of Tencent Music Entertainment Group, adds: “With the continuous development of the internet industry, and the company’s business, the team size and professional dimensions need to be expanded and enriched accordingly. Various new issues bring more and more risks and impacts, and while actively facing these challenges, we should learn to turn them into opportunities.”
Yu Shixuan, officer in charge of the legal and compliance division of CCB International (China), advocates cross-disciplinary continuous learning. “Laws and regulations and business logic vary greatly from industry to industry, requiring quick learning and adapting to different businesses in order to provide more appropriate legal advice.”
Joseph Chan, chief legal officer of Yum China, believes the role of an in-house counsel can lead policymaking. “The marketplace in China is constantly and rapidly evolving, and staying on top of the legal and regulatory environment pertinent to one’s industry and business is a must,” he says. “A proactive in-house counsel is also a policy advocate, where appropriate.”
In-house counsel should not rely too much on established experiences, says BOE Technology Group’s chief legal officer, Feng Liqiong. “Corporate legal should recognise that experience is likely to be a trap, and that you cannot find new continents with old maps,” says Feng.
“You should not be hypnotised by established views and experiences in your work, but learn new knowledge, broaden your horizons and keep up with business changes. Legal work should be updated and upgraded, together with innovation in the industry.”
Changes bring along challenges, says Stella Zhou, China legal counsel of Ferrero Trading (Shanghai), who says she welcomes these changes. “A fast evolving and challenging external environment makes an in-house counsel’s role more and more visible, and critical for a business organisation. It’s a golden time for in-house counsel in China.”
“Communication, communication, communication,” says Li Junwei, head of greater compliance of Midea Group. The importance of communication can never be overemphasised, especially in a pandemic that affects face-to-face contact with internal departments and external sectors. Effective communication with different parties is a fundamental skill for every general counsel.
Zhang, of Sina, says: “Good communication skills determine the accurate reception and transmission of messages between colleagues and partners, which can be more helpful to teamwork and promote achievements.”
However, good communication is easier said than done. Liu, of Gaw Capital, believes that the “ability to communicate clearly, in a precise and convincing manner, is one of the essential skills”.
Li Shuang, director of legal and risk control at EUROIMMUN Medical Diagnostics (China), notes that a successful in-house counsel should be “articulate and convincing”.
Alex Cao, the principal legal counsel of I-Mab, says it is important to think from another person’s perspective. “Adjust how a message is delivered to different audiences, e.g., business team, legal team colleagues, and external counsel. Know your internal clients’ business goals, work style, communication preferences, and decision-making traits [including typical blindsides].”
With the ability to think from others’ perspectives, one can achieve what Valda Chan, group general counsel of Emperor Group, calls the ability “to communicate with all walks of life”.
In-house counsel often talk about how they are becoming more like “strategists”. For a strategist, being business savvy and having strong business acumen is essential. Li, of EUROIMMUN, welcomes this change.
“The scope and the influence of the role should expand, along with a deeper involvement in business operation and company strategy,” says Li. “We should welcome and enjoy the change for a better future.”
Aaron Shao, at Abbott, deems “the ability to learn about the industry and general economic environment, and to pick up a commercial sense” as foundational to success.
Business teams are always the place to pick up business knowledge. “Learn the business – do the homework (e.g., industry, technology or business model) and learn from the business teams, who are usually happy to teach,” advises Cao, of I-Mab.
Liu Qiang, director of the legal and compliance centre at Panasonic Corporation of China, recognises the importance of business knowledge. “Pay attention to and understand the overall development strategy of the company, and ensure a way of thinking that is in sync with the management,” says Liu. “Fully understand the business and become an expert who is more proficient in understanding the business than the business department.”
Yu, of H&M, says in-house counsel should look through business opportunities, “and have the courage to experiment with new business solutions in line with the legislative trends and enforcement frontiers”.
Chan, of Yum China, adds: “Understand the business imperatives of the business partner that you support, and possess a strategic business partner mindset.”
From the responses to our survey, it is clear that there are higher expectations from in-house counsel, and their roles are increasingly becoming multi-faceted.
As Eric Xie, vice president and chief legal officer of Foxconn Industrial Internet, says: “A significant change is that the board of directors is expecting more and more from the general counsel, who has to handle a lot of work outside of law.”
Zhang, of Sina, advises: “We [in-house counsel] should always be profession oriented. We are in a position with very high professional requirements, so we must demand the highest professional level from ourselves, keep learning and improving, and win respect from partners, competitors, leaders and colleagues.”