General counsel continue to face an uphill struggle demonstrating their value to the business, sector research suggests, highlighting differences of opinion among senior lawyers and their board directors about lawyers' role and performance. 

Winmark, a network and research body, worked with international firm Clyde & Co to survey 100 senior in-house lawyers and 18 board directors for its latest Looking Glass report, which will be unveiled this evening.

According to the study, 68% of GCs say they are good at managing uncertainty. However, only 38% of board directors concur. ’This suggests that either board directors are unaware of how well GCs are performing, or that GCs may be overestimating their own abilities,’ the report says.

Board directors believe GCs spend more time reacting and less time on strategic and management tasks, compared with what GCs say their schedules look like.

A third of board directors think senior lawyers spend their time responding to internal legal requests; only 19% of GCs agree. Over a quarter of GCs spend their time working on strategic projects for the wider business - a view held by 15% of board directors. The report suggests the gap could be based on 'outdated experiences' that do not take into account changes to the GC role. 'It could also be that GCs' activities are simply not that visible to the board,' the report adds.

Lawyers and board directors agree that the most important aspects of the GC role are 'consistent, high-quality service delivery', and 'securing legal and regulatory compliance'. However, board directors place less importance than GCs on horizon-scanning to pre-empt issues and collaborating with other departments.

Over half (56%) of board directors say GCs meet their requirements well or very well, compared to 76% of GCs who think they are performing well.

Combining the GC and company secretary roles could foster closer relations with the board and greater involvement in discussions, some respondents suggested. 'This has the added advantage of enabling GCs to ensure that the board does not waste time exploring options that may be legally problematic,' the report says.

However, some respondents believed getting a seat at the board table is the wrong goal for GCs. They should, instead, work with and for internal stakeholders, to set the agenda and prepare documents for board consumption. 

One board director is quoted as saying: 'In-house lawyers want to have more access to boards. I don't want them to have more access to the board. I want them to deal with matters before they become a board matter. I want them to add more value down in the organisation. That is where the matters are relevant... If it is relevant to the board they have already failed because it has got too big a problem.'