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How to get a seat on the board…as a legal compliance professional

The reason that a compliance manager aspires to a seat on the board (apart from personal ambition) is usually to win high-level sponsorship for a risk-based approach to legal business, to ensure the right tone from the top that will drive the whole business to comply.

But in order to get there, a broader view is necessary, one which empathises with the perspectives of other business support functions and indeed with the senior fee earning community too.

After all, once you have won your seat, you won't just be 'the voice of risk' on the committee. As the GC of a Magic Circle firm said, during a panel discussion at Managing Partner's Senior Risk and Compliance Forum last week, 'I don't just contribute my views on risk issues, I contribute my views to Board discussions on everything.'

Since CEOs or managing partners are looking for board colleagues who can help steer the firm on a number of issues, it makes sense that if you want to be invited to join them, you should seek to understand other areas of the business, establishing relationships with the heads of HR, IT, business development and finance, for example. Of course, there's a high probability these functional heads will turn out to be on the same team in due course when they receive their own board promotions.

Indeed, the opening presentations of Managing Partner's KM Legal conference on 20 May 2015 showed that the challenges for heads of knowledge management in legal businesses are eerily similar. They also want a seat at the strategic table, high level endorsement and to train every newcomer to the firm, with regular refresher sessions. Compliance and KM are both lonely jobs in legal businesses. Is it worth sharing your core challenges with your head of KM in the absence of a huge community, such as the fee-earning one?

A legal business is just like any other and risk is not confined solely to legal cases. Helen Pitcher of Advanced Boardroom Excellence, who was moderating the panel session at the Senior Risk and Compliance Forum, pointed out that many boards, of all sectors, view talent management and succession planning - or the lack of - as a key, strategic risk.

One way to keep your ear to the ground on these types of strategic issues, which seem to originate in other functional areas, could be to read the legal business press, which reports on both internal and external risks to legal businesses including competition and structural market change.

Your LCA membership gives you access to Managing Partner articles which cover compliance but it may be worth reading other sections of Managing Partner on strategy, business development, knowledge management and technology, too. The business pages of the broadsheets are of course also useful for keeping up to date on general trends, as the COLP of a London based firm pointed out during her talk on managing information sources.

As another GC said, the sponsorship of someone who already sits on the board, or the CEO, ideally, is extremely useful in getting an invitation to join the senior management team.

And once you get there, they might help you to decode the 'secret' language of the board, too, giving you tips about who the decision-makers, influencers and objectors are likely to be. But you might want to add a pinch of salt to what they say. A delegate on my table suggested that sometimes it comes down to individual, personal relationships. Your sponsor might not personally get on with the 'objector' but you might find them perfectly personable. The delegate went on to suggest that, as a senior compliance professional, you might re-evaluate your own tricky relationships, sending your juniors to liaise and build bridges where they do have rapport with your difficult contact.

How do you get sponsored, though?

Getting noticed will in part come down to being an excellent functional head but the experiences shared at last week's conference suggests that broadening your perspective beyond risk and compliance to take a wider business view is a vital first step on your path to the boardroom. So the next time you bump into the head of IT by the water cooler, maybe it is worth opening up a conversation, to find out what their challenges are and what projects they are working on. You never know where it might lead. 

As always, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.


Leah Darbyshire is the Community Manager of the Legal Compliance Association and the Head of Content, Events at ARK Group.