Scott Offer has been a key legal leader in the technology industry for over 20 years. He is currently the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Flex – a $24b multinational electronic manufacturing and design company that operates in over 30 countries with 160,000 employees.
Scott invites us to look at the evolution of the GC’s role as a complete business partner. He explains how the transition from role-based capabilities to total business capabilities, leaning into data analytics, aligning with the company’s business objectives, and sharpening soft skills are what make lawyers successful leaders in an environment of constant change.
First, we start with Scott’s answers to nine “fill in the blank” questions:
- The best thing a GC can do for a client is:
“Balance the yin and yang of maintaining and enhancing governance with achieving company goals.”
- One big change in the corporate legal sector by 2025 will be:
“Using data and machine learning such as AI to enable better decision making.”
- The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally was:
“At a prior company – faced and overcame multiple injunctions which had the potential to shut the company down.”
- I love it when law firm lawyers:
“Invest time to get to know you on their own dime and use that to build close relationships.”
- I really dislike it when law firm lawyers:
“Try to sell me something I don’t want or need.”
- What I love about my team’s culture:
“Having a growth mindset and our constant commitment to change.”
- One little thing I should really change about the way I work:
“Prioritize exercise as much as work *laughs*”
- One sentence of advice for my 25-year-old self:
“Rather than spend the first 15 years of your career trying to get ahead, start by trying to understand people. Ask yourself, what makes people tick?”
- Thing in life I’m most proud of:
“My family and kids.”
You’ve been a general counsel in the tech sector for a long time – an industry that changes fast. Has the job changed for in-house lawyers and GCs?
The role of the GC now goes well beyond the job description. A split has formed between lawyers who want to stick to their legal knitting, and those who want to be complete business partners. It’s the second kind that companies need now.
We don’t learn how to be “complete business partners” – to use your phrase – in law school. We learn that stuff on the job. What do you think the elements are?
One essential piece is to be part of a united front – you’re not just representing the business; you are part of the business. To do this, lawyers need to be fluent in many techniques and processes. You need to work well with others to be successful together. It’s tempting for lawyers to do things one way, to think of themselves as solely part of the legal team. That’s their contribution – to bring their specialty to others, and they can sort of take it or leave it.
That’s becoming an old way of thinking. Lawyers need to understand the complete picture of the business they’re in. The transition is from role-based capabilities – asking, “What are the legal issues in this deal?” – to total capabilities, so they’re asking, “Should we do this deal?” Those are very different questions, and it’s a different mindset and a different skill-set to be able to ask that bigger question.
As a practical matter, if they have never really taken this approach before, how do in-house lawyers get from where they are to where they need to be?
You start by asking questions – asking for catch-ups with people to learn more about something. We can’t just speak when spoken to. In-house counsel often need to partner with people outside the legal department. If we were talking about almost any other department – Marketing or IT – this would seem so obvious. But for many lawyers, it’s still a barrier and it’s a leap for them. Even in some organizations, it can be a challenge – it can create a lot of complexity. But it’s worth it.
There are some skills lawyers tend to lack – we’ll need to build them if we are going to go shoulder-to-shoulder with the business as you’re describing.
Data is probably the biggest issue here – the business runs on data, decisions are made using data but lawyers have tended to avoid it. We used to guess and generalize and nobody would call us on it. The time for guessing is over – lawyers need to get over their fear of data and start incorporating data analysis into their work.
I’ve seen that using data to brainstorm and test different hypotheses will lead to more creative solutions. In particular, one example is using data for diversity and inclusion – I’m amazed at how rudimentary the data gathering has been. Can we just ask, “What would it look like to increase diversity by 20%?” And then model it – what would those steps look like?
Diversity is a human problem, it’s a very multifaceted complex problem, but it can be handled better if we use data in a more purposeful way that works towards moving the needle of change.
We think of lawyers as change-resistant, but really any large organization is change-resistant. So how can lawyers help drive change across the whole company?
If they’re approaching things in the right way, in-house lawyers are leaders at the company, and now that kind of leadership is always about managing change. Especially in a large organization that’s about design thinking and being a trusted advisor. So to succeed with this, in-house lawyers should turn their focus to developing soft skills – human empathy, growth mindsets and effective communication skills.
When we think about the goal, we’ve been sketching out the profile of the “super” in-house lawyer; what does she or he do to be the best? Of course it starts with deep technical capabilities, but the expertise is there to move the business forward – it’s used to create solutions. The other key pieces are leveraging point of view and voice, championing change and culture, developing fluency in many techniques and processes and using data to creatively test hypotheses.
Nobody can be all these things perfectly – but it’s a picture of the ideal. In a nutshell it’s a liberally educated and empathic person who is using her skills to create success for the business.
What does this look like in practice at Flex? And is it a culture shock for lawyers to operate this way? Clients expect us to be a certain way – what happens when Legal starts to think and act differently?
We had an experience involving a risk issue that basically every company has – creating a positive work environment, and looking out for negative or hostile work environments where they might come about. We wanted to take a different approach in order to really get at the root cause, which meant our legal and compliance leaders would have to get involved in the business and make good use of our compliance data.
Like most companies, we have a lot of compliance and risk information coming in from ethics hotlines, notes to the CEO or Board, fraud risk surveys, general employee engagement surveys and the like. But companies tend to take all this stuff, summarize it and read it out to other senior managers or the board – this doesn’t change the culture. So we decided – at the CEO and board level – to provide each manager with their own scorecard. We took this data and broke it down to let us see where there might be hot spots in the company – where there might be a negative work environment.
What we saw in the data was that we appeared to have a sexual harassment issue in a country operation. We couldn’t see the details from the aggregate data, but it suggested pretty clearly that there was a problem.
We took this to the business leadership team in the country operation, and they started out in denial, which I think is pretty common. The CEO helped us to persuade them to take it seriously. And it was a pretty quick flip for them from denial to open-mindedness and ownership of the problem. And from there, we worked together on this problem.
The team took the data we had and broke it down to smaller units – by site, floor, manager, line, shift. This showed us a much more precise picture of the problem, and it allowed us to create a targeted solution – rather then put everyone through numerous trainings, which is the usual response, the team came up with targeted policies and practices. Now the lawyers feel co-responsible for fixing the issues.
I can see a few points along the way in the story you’ve just told where a lawyer could get uncomfortable – in terms of their role, or the way information is being shared. Have you experienced that?
We certainly had some members of our own team that were uncomfortable at times with the approach. We took this as a collaboration with the business, and in part it was about using data and facts to persuade the business in the direction of the right approach as we saw it. That’s not the usual position for lawyers – we’re often more comfortable telling people what their obligations are and letting them figure out how to carry those out. Here we were in a position of working with the business, and persuading them of the right approach.
So like any change process, there are real considerations on all sides. But this is one of the experiences that reinforced my belief in that expanded skill-set for lawyers, the importance of empathy and a growth mindset – connecting with business leaders as people. We had some great moments and breakthroughs in this process. One of the key managers in the plant where we had the biggest issue went from a posture of resistance to saying, “Would I be proud to have my wife, daughter, best friend work on our lines?” And he became a key advocate and change agent there. That wouldn’t happen if we had done the data readout and just told him to run some training – that kind of change is much more involved, but it’s also much more rewarding work.