Empowering the in-house legal team – an interview with Maaike de Bie, General Counsel, Royal Mail

When Maaike de Bie joined Royal Mail as Group General Counsel, many people in the business didn’t understand what the legal team was there for. How can you transform a team from an overworked, undervalued advisory function into an invaluable contributor to the business? Sophie Gould talks to Maaike de Bie about how she empowered the legal team and shaped its role as a strategic business partner, resulting in it winning the Legal Department of the Year (Commerce and Industry) at the British Legal Awards 2017.

Tell us a little bit about your background …

I grew up in The Netherlands in the middle of nowhere and it was never in my line of sight to become a lawyer, I probably didn’t even know what a lawyer was. After secondary school, I took a year out and went to Montreal where I worked in hotels to see whether I would enjoy a career in hospitality.

While I was there I met a lot of people who had defected from the former USSR.  They had ended up in menial jobs but were unbelievably educated (vets, lawyers, accountants, teachers etc).  Although they may have spoken a number of languages, because their English was poor they were treated as if they were dumb.  The way they were treated surprised me and I wanted to help and protect them. I have always been someone who protected the underdog, or the kid that got bullied at school. So this got me thinking about starting a career where I could be doing what’s right by people, and that was the driver that led me to go to law school.

I started out studying law in Amsterdam but as I was interested in international law and being a global citizen I also went to McGill University in Montreal.  I took the New York Bar as that was the most international bar and joined  White & Case in New York, at the time one of the most international law firms.  After almost 6 years there, I decided to go back to Europe and arrived for a temporary stay in London – that was 20 years ago.

I was headhunted to work for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, then GE and then EY. Finally right after the IPO,  I took up the Deputy GC role at Royal Mail to be part of the change and transformation.

That’s the whirlwind of my background.  It wasn’t pre-planned and shows that there is no such thing as a one-track path to anywhere, including becoming a GC.   My philosophy has always been to follow my moral compass and to do what is right for me as a next step.  It’s important to know what makes you tick – it provides my moral compass.  If you always keep that in mind, it gives you great energy, purpose and direction.

Tell is about your current team at Royal Mail …

The areas I am accountable for are quite broad and include besides Legal also Compliance, Security, Investigations (incl Criminal Prosecutions), an Accidents and Claims Centre,  Information Governance and Data.  This team is just under 300 people with less than 20% of those being  lawyers.

In the Legal area I have set up 5 teams.  The first one is the Commercial Transactions team – our engine room.  Its covers everything Royal Mail does on a day-to-day.   It’s where we buy things (procurement) and sell things (retail and wholesale), our channel partners (the Post Office), our express parcels business (Parcelforce) and our International business.  It also covers our roughly 2,000 properties.

The second one is the Strategic Transactions team.  Probably more unusual – I decided to put technology, digital/data, IP and corporate together.  For us, technology and data are an instrumental part of our future because we are a logistics company and any corporate transactions we do have this as a key component.  We’re also looking at robotics, block-chain and smart contracting.

The third one is our Labour and Disputes team. We’re a people-heavy business, with 150,000 people in the UK and around 15,000 abroad in 43 countries.  Our UK work force is heavily unionised (as you may have seen in the press last year).  This area also covers pensions and shares schemes.  We’re not a litigation-heavy company however we do have an accident and claims centre to deal with personal injury claims.  We’ve got almost 50,000 vehicles on the road six days a week and we’re going up and down everyone’s garden paths, so things do happen.

The fourth is the Competition and Regulation team – as we are regulated by Ofcom we have a specialist team that specifically advises on that.

Finally, we have a Criminal Law team - who investigate and prosecute.  This can involve our own people (for instance those that steal the mail) or the public (for instance owners of dogs that have bitten our employees, or people who are trying to defraud us).  Last year, we had on average 6 dog bites a day!

When you first joined, how did you get under the bonnet of the team to understand the role they played in the business?

Coming in, it’s essential to understand what it is that people are doing and why are they doing it. Who are they doing it for? How do the requests come in? How do we know whether what we do is relevant to business needs?  As a first step this meant talking to the business to ask what it is that they wanted and also talking to the lawyers, to find out what they did.  It was quickly clear that we were not aligned.

The business used the legal team to document things and more or less as an assurance function, we didn’t play a strategic role.  I inherited an unhappy and stressed team that was working long hours and not always treated with respect by the business.   We needed to drastically change things, to communicate to our colleagues how best to get us involved, to show where and how we could add value. They needed to know that we didn’t just press buttons to spit out work.

I believe that when you’re in a leadership role, you’re here to serve your team; to show purpose and strategic direction (linking it with the wider purpose & strategy of the company), to support, coach, mentor and champion your team.  When you do that well, you create an atmosphere where people can thrive and be valued, which in turns makes most people happy.  And when people are happy, they tend to collaborate.  And when they collaborate, they innovate, and then things get better.

So, we started from the beginning.  Asking ourselves why we were there and making sure that we were aligned strategically with the company.  And when deciding what to do next, ask first - is this at the heart of the company? Is it going to grow our company?  Is it going to protect our company? Is it linked to our strategy? Is it best use of our resources for what the company needs?

We also turned the supply-demand around. We were very much an on-demand team and we took work as it came in.  We changed that and explained that we only had a finite amount of resources.  Together with our colleagues, we looked at what the company needed and thought of alternative ways of delivering the work;  for instance, can it be automated or self-service, or it’s going external or should we do this at all?

We weren’t helping ourselves by always jumping in at the last minute to save the day.  So we started to communicate to our colleagues what (time) we needed to provide the best possible support.  For instance, if they want a robust, well-thought through legal opinion, then we probably need a week.  If they want a solid legal view, give us three days.  If they just want a steer, we can do this on the spot.  If colleagues know this then they’ll start to consider our time and how we add best value to them.  It also creates respect and trust.  These are small things but I find they make a big difference.

I encourage the team to network with our peers. We’re all reinventing the same wheel with no budgets.  So I encourage our lawyers to meet with other lawyers in other companies or law firms, have a coffee with them and bring back what you learn.  And it’s the same with business colleagues, spend time getting to know them, understand what is worrying them, what do they want to achieve. My team would say, really, I can go and have coffee with my business colleagues rather than sitting at my desk churning out work?  I very much think this is part of work.  We need to understand the business, we need to learn.  This is how we can become better at what we do and add most value to our company.

Was there any pushback from the business? And how did you manage that?

By being very clear what we could do (and how) to help them.  Empathy is a skill that most lawyers have but we are not always good at showing it.  It’s about communication, use of language and building relationships.  We tend to jump in with the answers or solutions, and sometimes it is about listening and understanding.

One thing we did was put in place client-facing lawyers in different areas of our company. Regularly they sit down with people in the relevant business unit and simply have a chat to find out what’s going on and where they can be of help.  It’s in these conversations where you get really important information about what’s worrying people and what risks they see.  That’s great information for us because we can then anticipate and mitigate those risks.  Our team has a monthly meeting to share the output of these regular catch-ups which helps us all to get to know the business better, connect dots and work together to find best way to provide support to our colleagues.

Being out there regularly communicating with our business colleagues, showing empathy, helps our colleagues to recognise our ability to add value and how we’re trying to help them.  It also means that they might come to us with questions earlier and that of course enables us to do our job better.

What skills does an in-house lawyer need to succeed?

Being commercial is crucial, as is being able to explain things in language that can be understood by business colleagues. Lawyers need to know their audience. Most people aren’t interested in the ins and outs of the law. They just want to know, can I do this, yes or no? Or, what are my risks?

I have seen people come to lawyers almost to ask permission to do something.  If the lawyer says there are risks, then that’s interpreted as them saying “no”.  This is when the team is being seen as an assurance function.  It is important that we highlight the nuances.  Of course this also means being comfortable with the grey areas, which is critical when you work in-house. This is where judgement and experience come in.  Lawyers bring something different  in terms of thinking and analysis – it’s our way of dissecting and seeing ways through that other people might not see.  A different lens.   Of course you must use your judgement with an understanding of the risk appetite of the business which is vital.

I believe that as in-house lawyers, we’re here to protect and do what’s best for the company.  Not just answering the question ‘can we do this’ but also ‘is it right to do this’? We bring a different perspective and our duty is ultimately as officers of the court.  Our customer here is the company.  It’s really important that we always keep that in mind.  When you’re in-house, you must be constantly tuned into what the company is trying to achieve – at a higher level.

Another sign of a great in-house lawyer is being able to connect the dots.  Because we have a deep overview of the business, we can see one area doing one thing and another area doing something else and say, hang on, why don’t you two speak?  We can bring people together and break down silos.

What lessons have you learnt that you would pass on to your younger self?

One lesson is acknowledging that you’ve earned your seat at the table and it’s okay for you to be there.  I’m no different to all the other people out there still waiting to be found out!

Something else that has taken me a long time to figure out, but that has been instrumental, is to create balance in your life.  For a large part of my career, I’ve erred on the side of too much work, not spending enough time looking after myself or with family and friends.  I have found that if you are in balance, then you are going to be better at your job.

The profession has lots of issues around mental health and part of that is being ‘on’ all the time. It’s not healthy.  I committed not to email my team after 7pm during the week or at the weekend unless it’s urgent.  People still will decide which hours to work,  and I will of course myself work evenings and weekends as need be – but I won’t impose this on my team.  Over time this has resulted in people being  more considerate and becoming more respectful of each other’s time.  In turn, it creates more happiness, collaboration, respect and trust.

Finally, I would say, it is so important that you know why you do what you do: your own moral compass, your own values.  If you can align your values with the organisation and the people you’re working with then that helps you be authentic and congruent – which makes you most effective and happier as well.

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