As 2019 progresses, leaders of Missouri chapters of the Association of Corporate Counsel are fielding questions from members on such topics as the #MeToo Movement, new European data-privacy rules and how to take on larger roles in their organizations.
In separate conversations, Missouri ACC leaders discuss the top-of-mind concerns of their members this year with Missouri Lawyers Media. (Conversations have been lightly edited for context and clarity)
Charlene Wilson, assistant general counsel of H&R Block, will head the Mid-America Chapter of the ACC, which covers Kansas City and the western portion of the state. She is in her second year as chapter president.
Q: What concerns are coming to the fore from in-house corporate attorneys this year?
WILSON: The Association of Corporate Counsel recently did a survey of chief legal officers. That question came up: What’s keeping our in-house counsels up at night? As you can imagine, I think the top responses were data breaches and protection of corporate data. There’s information privacy and then just regulatory and government changes. Obviously risk management, how you control risk — especially in light of the #MeToo movement — probably ranks second.
Q: What are the issues with data privacy?
WILSON: Consumers have an expectation of privacy for the information they transmit, and as we move into this digital age where everything is available, how do you as a company protect that data and protect against inappropriate entry into your system to get access to that data? Obviously, data breaches have been in the news with several large companies.
Q: Are regulatory matters of increased concern?
WILSON: Many people in the legal community have heard of what’s been referred to by the acronym GDPR, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. It really talks about how you handle client and customer-data information, what you do with that data, what rights the individuals have. Movements like that are starting to be seen in the U.S. As more states start taking a look at that regulatory environment and saying, ‘With those changes in the European Union and as we look at data protection and privacy as being important and of concern to consumers, what regulation and regulatory changes do we see in the U.S. now as a result?’
Q: What about the #MeToo Movement?
WILSON: I think that’s just the ethics and compliance aspect of things, the compliance that goes along with risk management. How do we make sure that everybody is aware of compliance with company policies and procedures? How do we make sure that everybody understands them? Then if we receive reports or have issues, we can adjust or take responsive steps.
Q: What are you hearing about risk management from members?
WILSON: There is risk in every organization. How do you assess what your risk is? Where are your key items of risk and how do you mitigate them within your business? What risk-management plan do you have in place? How do you evaluate your risks and take steps to identify any new or potential risks that come along?
Q: How has the role of the general counsel changed during the past decade?
WILSON: That’s a timely question. The role of the GC has changed in many respects, and what I know we are seeing in our area and what I think the industry is seeing is an evolving role into not just the legal aspect of things but more of a broader role that has more administrative legal operations but also as a business partner for the business. There is more involvement with corporate responsibility, corporate sustainability, more involvement at the forefront of how we achieve business goals in terms of growth and increased revenue and profits.
Q: What plans does your chapter have for the coming year?
WILSON: We do programming once a month to highlight these issues that we know are keeping in-house counsels concerned, to make sure they are educated and informed. The other thing we’re doing is social-networking events, more informal events among in-house counsel so they can interact and see what other companies are doing, what their concerns are and how they are addressing those concerns.
Chrissy Teske, senior counsel at Commerce Bancshares Inc. for the past two years, will preside over the St. Louis chapter of the ACC as its president in 2019.
Q: Privacy regulation and the GDPR are really in the news. What are general counsels looking at in that area?
TESKE: In terms of privacy, it is just protecting our customer’s information and protecting our information in a merger or acquisition situation, or depending on how different legal departments partner with people outside the company, protecting those rights and their intellectual property and certainly their confidential information.
Q: Many are talking about the #MeToo Movement. How is it affecting general counsels?
TESKE: Not all of the employees are housed in the corporate building, and it is about making sure the message is communicated to everyone via training and policy and providing an outlet for people like a hotline or email, a mechanism to report anything that they see or hear. I think it is important that all companies set themselves and their employees up for success in terms of training and policies, so people understand what can and can’t be done in the workplace and prepare the company in the event that if something were to happen, what steps need to be in place to protect the company and protect the employees.
Q: What other on-the-job concerns do you hear about from your members?
TESKE: I think the main issue that people have asked us to address, which is why we’ve partnered with Washington University, is what steps they need to take to become more valuable to senior leadership and the board of directors. How do we get our seat at the table? How do we get our voices heard? Because a lot of times, legal is the last to be included and the last to be asked about something that’s going on. I think that’s something people are anxious to learn more about.
Q: You mentioned a partnership with Wash U?
TESKE: The Washington University MBA Program and [the chapter] have teamed up together to have one of their professors provide programming to our membership and talk about the program — not just about their program but also how to be an effective business leader.
Q: What other things are you looking at in 2019?
TESKE: I think a lot of what our chapter is trying to focus on is how in-house attorneys can get their seat at the table in terms of making their voices heard among the board of directors, CEOs and other business leaders. How do we increase those leadership skills to help ourselves as corporate lawyers to be successful and thrive? I think that’s something we need to focus on. We partner now with Washington University and the people that are in charge of its executive MBA program. We provide programming to our membership to get them in step with what that looks like as an in-house attorney — how to get that seat at the table, the strategy when you are dealing with the board of directors.
Q: What other issues are cropping up nationwide that attorneys need to think about on an in-house basis?
TESKE: Legal operations. What legal departments can do to increase their value proposition, be more efficient in terms of e-billing and forecasting for using outside counsel, dashboards that summarize how the legal department is performing. If there are budgetary goals, key projects, priorities . . . [also] key performance indicators. How do you measure those? I think that is something that a lot of legal departments across the country are looking at. How do you give legal operations more of a focus so you have something reportable and tangible [for] the CEO and CFO, and the board of directors to show you are dedicated to the task of keeping budgets down?
Q: What are your chapter’s plans for 2019?
TESKE: Our goal — and I think any president’s goal — for this chapter is just to make sure the membership understands what a really fantastic network of in-house attorneys we have. And what the key things are that we have to offer as an organization, which is access to members, connecting with members across the country that have the same or similar business issues and how they deal with them.