The Strategic-Asset General Counsel

Published by
Kimberly Simpson

Kimberly Simpson

In June, NACD convened general counsels (GCs) from across the country for a one-day meeting in New York City on the role of the GC in supporting boards of directors. Program panels consisted of directors, GCs, and subject-matter experts on legal issues affecting board decision making.

The Evolving Role of the GC

According to Richard D. Buchband, senior vice president, GC, and secretary for ManpowerGroup, the GC must clear the way for the board to focus on strategic matters. Though each company is different, long past are the days when the GC’s role was to take minutes in the corner of the boardroom.

A clue to how a general counsel will be perceived in any given company may be found in the interview process, when a candidate should take note of whether board members participate. Also, in assessing how the board will utilize the GC, a candidate or sitting GC should be aware of whether board members hail from countries in which the GC traditionally takes a smaller role, reporting not to the CEO but to the CFO, according to Yvonne E. Schlaeppi, director for Stallergenes Greer and former GC for several companies, including Johnson Controls Europe.

Once connected to the board, the general counsel can be of value for many facets of the enterprise, leveraging his or her unique position in the organization to assimilate information and data from across the business. Several suggested that the general counsel should always offer a recommendation when providing input to the board. In fact, judgment is a critical part of what a GC offers the board. “The crux of a GC being a strategic advisor to the board is having your good judgment on the complex mix of puzzles which general counsels deal with all the time—including commercial, legal, and people challenges—recognized and valued,” said Schlaeppi.

Further, the career of Robert Bostrom, senior vice president, GC, and corporate secretary for Abercrombie & Fitch Co., illustrates how the general counsel can be the glue for an organization in turmoil. During a prior role as general counsel at Freddie Mac, he saw several CEOs and CFOs come and go around the time of the 2008 financial crisis and when the government appointed a conservator. Today, Bostrom co-chairs Abercrombie’s enterprise risk management group and leads the organization’s crisis management team, taking point on risks affecting the company’s reputation.

Moving the Board Forward

Of course, given that the GC is often the most knowledgeable person about issues of corporate governance, the GC brings tremendous value by providing advice and counseling on governance matters. Gillian A. Hobson, partner, capital markets and mergers & acquisitions at Vinson & Elkins, pointed out that such governance matters include issues such as independence, diversity, proxy access and others outlined in Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles, published in 2016 by a group of leading executives and investors. In addition, in order to move a board forward, the general counsel has a number of specific tools at his or her disposal. The general counsel can:

  • Suggest formats for a board evaluation and skills matrix;
  • Bring outside information (such as NACD’s Blue Ribbon Commission Reports) and outside perspectives (such as those from ISS, BlackRock and others) to the board; or
  • Develop relationships with board members, including board leadership and more progressive board members.

William E. McCracken, director for MDU Resources Group and for NACD, suggested that when boards get “stuck,” the GC is in a “unique position to lift the board’s vision up to see what else is happening out there.” Steven Epstein, corporate partner and co-head of mergers and acquisitions at Fried Frank, agreed. “The GC will be up to speed on the general M&A landscape and the latest thinking of the courts and will be well-positioned to combine that knowledge with the business objectives of the company, which is extremely valuable to the board.”

No Surprises and Keep It Short

Several times throughout the day, panelists espoused the best practice of imparting “no surprises” to the CEO or the board. For example, if the GC sets up lunch with a board member, Buchband suggests a check in with the CEO after the meeting is set but before the lunch takes place. “I ask the CEO if there are any issues he would like me to raise or discuss,” said Buchband. Keeping the board informed on matters affecting governance is equally important.

Also, all panelists reiterated how important it is for the GC to keep materials short and topline for the board. “We can be victims of our own desire to be thorough,” noted Buchband.

Enterprise Risk Management and Compliance Make the GC’s Job Easier

The role of risk assessment is not to avoid all risk, but rather to identify and manage risk, said George J. Terwilliger III, partner at McGuire Woods. In fact, Bostrom noted that enterprise risk management at Abercrombie helps him and the company prioritize risks. If a risk rises to the top, then a cross-functional, high-level team has agreed that it should be there, and he doesn’t have to champion the cause as a lone voice.

Daniel Trujillo, senior vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer for Wal-Mart International, stressed that a culture of compliance must start at the top. A program must then be implemented that is effective, consistent, data driven, efficient and sustainable. Terwilliger echoed that compliance has to be part of the fabric of the company, with the compliance council acting as a convener rather than as “internal police.” Today, predictive analytics help his team spot trouble early at Walmart, at the country or even the store level.

Consider Cross-Border Complexities

Just as Wal-Mart operates globally, so too do companies like Abercrombie. David H. Kistenbroker, global co-head of white collar and securities litigation at Dechert, reminded the audience to consider cross-border complexities when advising the board. Long-arm statutes in the United States and United Kingdom can impact deals all over the world. Due to such complexities, the GC is in a unique position to be a strategic asset to companies operating globally, especially where board members are all based in in the United States.

NACD would like to thank the panelists for sharing their experiences with attendees, and for these generous sponsors for their support of the event: Dechert, Fried Frank, KPMG, and Vinson & Elkins.


Kimberly Simpson is an NACD regional director, providing strategic support to NACD chapters in the Capital Area, Atlanta, Florida, the Carolinas, North Texas and the Research Triangle. Simpson, a former general counsel, was a U.S. Marshall Memorial Fellow to Europe in 2005.

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