Usually, outside counsel want feedback from their clients. But when Lendlease’s group general counsel Karen Pedersen engages outside law firms, she wants to hear the firms’ opinions on what her people are like to work with and if the Australia-based international real estate and investment company can do anything better.
“I think it’s really important, because one of the values that we get from external firms is that they see lots of different organizations, lots of different people and see things being done differently,” said Pedersen, who oversees the legal department at the Sydney-based headquarters.
“One of the challenges of being in-house is you get blinkered into how an organization does things.”
Half of Lendlease’s 120-strong legal department is based in Australia and the rest are split among London, Singapore and New York. The department is responsible for the company’s legal, company secretarial and compliance functions.
The share market-listed business has three—development, construction and investments—and earned a little under A$10 billion in revenue in the 12 months ending June 30, 2021. Its construction and development arms have been busy thanks to projects associated with the massive infrastructure spending on Australia’s east coast.
The real estate company outsources work such as run-of-the-mill leasing and conveyancing and some specific regulatory work. But it keeps in-house what Pedersen calls the strategic work, where knowledge of the organization allows the corporate counsel to add value. This includes big transactions and major disputes that are driven by the in-house team but may also draw on external lawyers.
Technical skills in major and second-tier law firms are a given, Pedersen said. But what Lendlease is really looking for from outside counsel are lawyers who are prepared to work with a very hands-on in-house team and who really understand where the business wants to go and how it will get there, rather than just focusing on the task at hand.
Aligned values of diversity, integrity and respect are also important.
“We’re also looking at firms that will constructively challenge and question our positions and sort of say, ‘Have you really considered if this is the right track or have you thought about these issues or these things? Have you thought about going this way?’” she said.
And it’s not always easy to get honest feedback from firms, Pedersen said.
“A lot of firms take the attitude that the client is always right.”
This is not what she wants to hear. She wants to know what she’s missing, especially when it comes to innovation.
“We ask them to provide us feedback on whether there are things that we could be doing better—that they are seeing being done better by other teams in other organizations?” she said.
She also asks whether there are things they do as an organization that result in them spending more money on outside counsel—actions that if changed, would enable the firm to provide better value service.
And with such a big Lendlease team, she also wants feedback on what the legal staff are like to work with—particularly if external lawyers see something they’re uncomfortable with or which is being done differently from the way the company usually does it.
Her main focus on legal tech concerns is how technology can make people’s lives easier. Lendlease uses automated contracting, document automation and an information management and knowledge-sharing platform. The last of these is particularly useful, given the number of people who consider the legal department to be “the corporate filing cabinet,” she said.
Pedersen came to in-house counsel roles after a stint at local top tier firm Clayton Utz, after which she worked in investment banking and then as a transaction manager at builder Multiplex, where she later became general counsel and stayed for 15 years before joining Lendlease as group general counsel in 2013.
General counsel have to be agile and adaptable because they are in a service role to the business, and it is the business that drives the agenda, Pedersen said, noting that on many days she is lucky to get past the second item of her to-do list.
“You’ve got to have the judgment to say ‘OK, this is more important than what I was planning to do,’” she said.
They are also increasingly drawn into issues and stakeholder management, particularly for listed companies, and have to think about issues from a reputational perspective. They need to consider what actions might mean for Lendlease staff and the wider organization rather than solely looking at them from a legal perspective.
That the role isn’t just black letter law is one of the things Pedersen enjoys about the job.
She also likes the industry itself.
“I love property. I love that it’s tangible. You can sort of walk down the street and talk about working on particular projects. And I’ve been fortunate to do that in a number of places around the world in my career,” she said.
And there is concrete evidence that the multinational’s group GC is not glued to her desk: She has her own hard hat, a fluorescent vest and workboots.
“It’s great when you do get the opportunity to walk around the different projects and see what is done,” she said. “It’s always fantastic and amazing to see the work that people are doing around the place.”