Battle Tested Strategies from an In-House Counsel

In this episode of Legal Disrupters, Tom and Bjarne share their valuable insights, tips and findings from their experience working as In-House General Counsels.
January 3, 2024
Last updated:
January 3, 2024

Legal. Tech. Business. AI.

The report says take up of the technology across England and Wales is incredibly high with around half of lawyers surveyed reporting they are already using AI technology.

People just don't realise there's an entire new world emerging full of clever new tech that’s going to revolutionise the way we do business. The role of the lawyer in particular is changing dramatically.

Paris Monroe

In total, 126 tech startups have raised venture capital funding in Ukraine since the start of last year, according to Pitchbook

Electra Japonas

I think lawyers, old school lawyers particularly, think that everything they do is really, really special, and so, therefore needs to be bespoke and needs to be done manually in a very artisanal way.

Sam Walkley

Great legal tech won't replace a great lawyer, but great legal tech in the hands of a great lawyer is game changing.

This is Legal Disrupters powered by Summize. Digital contracting done differently.

Graeme Smith

Welcome along to episode six of Legal Disrupters, the last in the current series. But don't you worry, on this episode, we have wheeled out the big guns for our trendsetter talk.

Coming up, we've got the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Member of the Executive of one of the world's largest consumer healthcare businesses, Bjarne Tellmann from Haleon. The company, a joint venture between GSK and Pfizer, is set to de-merge and list on the London and New York Stock Exchange this summer in what will be the largest spin off and listing in modern UK history. And he's on this podcast in just a few minutes.

Coming up on Legal Disrupters.

Bjarne Tellmann

I think there's something about that adrenaline rush of being in a high-stakes situation of really setting that goal and setting that task and crushing it that is immensely satisfying.

Legal. Tech. Business. AI. This is Legal Disrupters news.

Graeme Smith

For the second year in a row, Wolters Kluwer and The Lawyer have released their benchmark on the place of digitalisation in legal departments and on how legal technologies can help improve efficiency. The report includes additional questions exploring how involved in-house legal departments are in environmental, social, and governance, and activities across their organisation.

Over 100 participants, fulfilling high responsibility functions within legal departments ranging from 1 to 100 employees, were able to give insight about the challenges faced by their department and the place of digitalisation in the answers to these challenges.

When it comes to driving efficiency and making improvements within their organisation, respondents were very clear about which areas they wanted to address most urgently. 37% of respondents said they were planning to improve their compliance management function, with a further 36% saying they were planning to improve their contract management function.

Despite these challenges, the number of participants that do not have a clear digital strategy remains the same as last year at 39%. As far as the ESG study of companies is concerned, the study showed that 28% of legal teams are responsible for the development of the ESG plan and related activities, and 23% were responsible for their implementation.

Legal Disrupters.

Graeme Smith

The stock market is taking a bit of a beating right now, along with all investments really, a little bit awkward with inflation being so high, as a result of energy prices being through the roof.

It's a done deal. The rate announcement just came out in the last 30-60 seconds or so here, the Fed has, in fact, per market expectations for broader expectations on Wall Street, raised the benchmark lending rate in America by 75 basis points 0.75%, three quarters of a percent, if you will. Largest rate hikes since going all the way back to 1994.

Many market commentators currently saying that the Federal Reserve may have triggered a potential recession, is something that interest rates alone will not fix. However, despite generalised concerns about the rest of the economy, it seems that there is still huge appetite for investment in legal technology companies.

The Legal Tech Fund, the first and only fund focused exclusively in this space, just announced that it pulled in $28.5 million to invest in startups serving the legal industry. This surpasses its original $25 million goal with contributions from different corners of the legal tech curious world, including Caper Centre Investments, McDermott, Will and Emery, Orrick, DocuSign, and Carter. The fund has invested in 30 companies so far, with an initial investment of around $1 million.

Legal Disrupters.

Graeme Smith

Non-lawyers will disrupt the legal technology markets, such as to create a tipping point, probably in the next five years. This, according to the outgoing head of Law Tech UK. Jennifer Swallow leaves the government backed initiative which aims to support tech transforming the UK legal sector in the summer, having set it up 2 and a half years ago. Her successor has been chosen but her identity has not yet been announced.

The organisation has produced a “What we have achieved summary” to mark Ms. Swallows departure. It focuses on a number of areas such as the law tech sandbox, which connects law tech start-ups with regulators and decision makers in a supportive environment. Other achievements include a proof of concept online dispute resolution platform, the UK's legal statements on crypto assets and smart contracts, and an online learning and resource hub. Miss Swallow, a former General Counsel at money transfer company TransferWise, now called just Wise, predicted that the tipping point would come from the use of structured data.

Legal Disrupters powered by Summize. Digital contracting done differently with intelligent automation making your workflow smarter. For more, visit

Paris Monroe

More reporting in the FT this week about in-house lawyers moving out of the shadows in organisations and becoming involved in even more decisions. In particular, legal departments are taking over more environmental, social and governance functions, and being called on for their business expertise beyond traditional legal work. Here's Rachel John, Senior in-house lawyer for a major supermarket chain, about how not taking an interest in the wider business is a lost opportunity.

Rachel John

External law firms are there to provide the black and white legal rhetoric. Whereas, in-house lawyers do that too, but they're are also in a unique position that they often see and are involved in the detail of multiple deals across multiple different business units.

So, with that level of understanding and insight of a business, plus access to the right people, to not use that knowledge for the commercial benefit of the business not only be a waste of resources but a missed opportunity for individuals to get more from their career.

Paris Monroe

The increasing use of technology, electronic billing or contract management software means in-house legal teams are also becoming repositories of company data and information. The information they collect has wide potential, from revealing whether the business is making the best use of its intellectual property portfolio, to keeping track of which lawyer is working on which piece of litigation.

Analysis of such information can reveal emerging trends and even give early warning of wider problems, such as growing numbers of new lawsuit claims. The information allows in-house lawyers to manage business contracts throughout the contract lifecycle, as opposed to being just bought in to negotiate at the end. The lawyers may use data to analyse the risk of certain contract clauses for certain customers, for example, and to assess how far the terms differ from the company's standard contracts.

These represent significant advances. When legal departments had to use the same IT as the rest of the business, there was nothing fit for purpose. Now, thanks to new and more sophisticated legal tech tools, departments can get control over the lifecycle of a contract.

Graeme Smith

Paris Monroe reporting there. I'm Graeme Smith. This is Legal Disrupters.

You're listening to Legal Disrupters powered by Summize, with the must listen to people at the cutting edge of legal, tech, business and AI. This is the trendsetter talk on Legal Disrupters.

Graeme Smith

On this episode of Trendsetter Talk, Bjarne Tellmann is the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Member of the Executive of Haleon, the world's largest consumer healthcare business. The company, a joint venture between GSK and Pfizer, is set to de-merge and list on the London and New York Stock Exchange in July 2022, in what will be the largest spinoff and delisting in modern UK history.

Bjarne was previously CLO, General Counsel, and Member of the Executive of Pearson a Footsie 100 company. He's received numerous professional awards, including Chambers GC Influencers Global 100 Award in 2019, Legal Eras 2018 General Counsel of the Year at the British Legal Awards. A regular writer on leadership disruption and digital transformation, his book, Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle Tested Strategies from a General Counsel, came out in May 2017 and a forthcoming Law Review article on digital transformation is being published in Volume 17 of the Journal of Business and Technology Law by the University of Maryland.

We were very happy to chat with him regarding his unique approach to building an in-house team. Here he is talking to the former GC and now of course CEO and founder of the legal technology company Summize, about how he ended up where he is, what's changing the game in legal tech and a bit about his new book as well.

Legal Disrupters.

Tom Dunlop

Bjarne, you've made, obviously, a name for yourself in the in-house legal world. But you started your career very much at a law firm, so it would be good just to get going to give a little bit of background about, I guess, that initial decision to go in-house and the journey that you went on to get to where you are today.

Bjarne Tellmann

Sure. You know, my journey was quite peripatetic in some ways. I actually started life as an actor. I was in a theatre conservatory and did a couple of films back in Norway in my youth and then ended up migrating eventually into university and then the law.

But I did start out life in two big law firms, Sullivan & Cromwell and White & Case. And then migrated, as you said. And I think you know, the way I see it, law firms are and should be finishing school. In some ways, they're a place to get real world training, they're a place where you can learn to apply the law in practice, where you can learn how to be a professional, because I think many young lawyers have never been professionals and so it's a useful skill. It's also a great place to acquire that ability to pay attention to detail, to be precise and how you think, to really be rigorous on client service.

But for me, you know, after a number of years in a law firm, and you get to a point where you either go deep on that or or you jump off. And for me, the love of business and the love of a broader practice was really what kind of called me and you know, this notion of building things, this notion of focusing on leadership, on people, on strategy. And those are things that typically, I don't think most law firms are really focused on. They're not necessarily great at developing talent, focusing on people, thinking about strategy and so forth.

So, law firms are a great place if you want to be a lawyer's lawyer, and a deep area expert - that wasn't my calling. I really wanted that breadth, so that was that was kind of the impetus for the jump.

Tom Dunlop

No that makes sense. I mean… I guess I don't think I've met any other lawyers that started out as an actor. That's a great way to start the career!

So, I guess working in-house and supporting the business, you mentioned it there about kind of that was a big draw for you. What specifically do you like the most about that more wider business support role? What really kind of piques your interest in terms of, I guess, supporting the business from a wider angle?

Bjarne Tellmann

Yeah. I mean, look, I think in the beginning and certainly when you're, sort of, mid-level in your career and you're eligible for jumping across, the thing that attracted me was the breadth of practice, right? The fact that, you know, in any given day you can wake up and have what feels like a million unanticipated things hitting you, right? Things that you never expect to see as a lawyer, they tend to hit you, and not all of them are legal. A lot of them are just problems that need to be solved and you have to apply rigorous thinking to them.

I think the closeness to one client and that ability to really get yourself into the strategy of the business, how it makes money, what's important to customers and consumers - that, to me was very powerful. The attraction to brands was something that I loved. And then, you know, as I've gotten more senior, I guess, in the corporate legal space and I think another element has emerged, which is strategy and being part of an executive team and stepping further away, perhaps from the law per se and more towards strategic thinking on an enterprise level and participating in that. And applying those skills in the legal space more towards navigating, uncertainty, navigating risk, thinking about how the business can achieve its objectives with a reasonable level of risk and in a manner that is enabling it to do the right thing, protecting its reputation, etc.

So, those are things that I really love about it and then, you know, at a more operational level, I think over the last, particularly the last seven or eight years, the emergence of technology, the emergence of digital disruption and how that's impacting the legal profession, how that's impacting the way in which we practice and the promise that that brings for future practice. Those are areas that I think have been particularly fascinating to me and I'm seeing a lot of change in that space on the in-house side, perhaps more so in some ways than what you see in the law firm context.

So, those are just all reasons that I think make an in-house career super attractive.

Tom Dunlop

Interesting. And we'll definitely get onto the, I guess, the disruptive element of the legal industry in a moment too.

I mean one of the things that people may not know about yourself, and I only ask this question because of my, kind of, sporting background as well. But I believe you're also previously an avid martial artist? I was previously a Great Britain badminton player, and it's quite interesting understanding the correlation between, I guess, elite athlete or that competitive, kind of, side of people and getting into the law. I've noticed that there's a few people with that sort of background.

Do you think there's any correlation there between and the lawyers and athletes?

Bjarne Tellmann

Yeah, it's an interesting question. You know, I do think, and one can generalise, right? But I do think that if you step back and you look at the different types of motivators that drive different professionals and different people, you know, you have people who are driven by affiliation, so you know, have a strong need to be part of a team. You have people who are driven, maybe by things like money or power. And then then you have people who are driven by achievement and who just, their DNA is just wired to focus on setting goals and achieving things.

And I think that lawyers in particular are heavily represented in that last category of achievers, and I think athletes are as well, there's something about setting goals, there's something about competing, about winning at something.

I think this notion of just having task parameters that you set, having control over those, taking risks but knowing that those are reasonable or realistic risks, getting feedback, you know, how am I performing? How am I doing? And taking on something that is that is challenging. I think all of those are closely correlated between competitive sports and the law. So, you know, there may be something, there may be something there.

I think there are downsides to that as well, particularly for those of us who focused on individual sports. You know, you kind of have to make sure that you step back and focus on the team and make sure that you're giving feedback, that you're coaching, that you're recognising others and, you know, that is potentially a “watch out” for many lawyers is just building that level of empathy and teamwork that's critical to success. And it may be less so in, at least in an individualised sport.

But yeah, I think there's something about that adrenaline rush of being in a high-stakes situation of really setting that goal and setting that task and crushing it that is immensely satisfying. And, you know, maybe there's something also about just that spark of energy that that will and drive to do something and to be good at it. I think those are all tasks that serve you well in a legal career, for sure.

So, maybe there's some correlation there, but you can look at correlations across lots of things and that's all they are, they're not necessarily causative. I was listening to a conversation the other day where people were making some observation that lots and lots of high performers in the business world are also heavy Coke drinkers or Diet Coke drinkers. I'm not sure there is a direct causation there. It's not that, you know, if you start drinking lots of Diet Coke, you're going to be a great business person.

Tom Dunlop

A good tip there for anyone who's who's listening - Diet Coke.

Well, speaking of teams, I think it's a good segue -- I mean, you literally wrote the book on, which is called Building an Outstanding Legal Team, obviously all about, kind of, I guess, a brief intro to what the book is about. But obviously also because you scaled and manage a large legal team, a little bit about how you actually built and scaled that team as well would be, it would be good.

Bjarne Tellmann

Yeah, sure. Look, I mean, you know, I wrote the book partly because I remember years ago someone on my team who had just been put in the role and had come from a law firm, you know, came to me and, sort of, we were in a meeting and she raised her hand and said, you know, I just wondered if there's like a manual or something that can help me do this job? You know, we all started laughing and we said, no, there's no manual. You know, you just have to go out there and do your job. But it did get me thinking that, you know, maybe there is a framework of some kind. You know, there might be a framework out there to help people focus on building teams.

And so, the book really tries to put that framework out there for people and it focuses on three big pillars of team building, you know, the first being the hardware. So, really thinking about the harder, measurable (and hard I mean, in sort of a concrete, measurable way), aspects of building a team. So, thinking about things like reporting lines and budgets and technology, infrastructure, etc.

And then there's a second piece, which I think is actually the most important. Which is what I call the software and I use that word not just because it has the word soft and it's sort of, less tangible. But I think also software needs to be upgraded on a continual basis, whereas hardware perhaps less often. And software includes things like your culture. What are the values and beliefs that drive behaviour in your team? Your capabilities? What skills are you looking for? What talents do people need to have to succeed? And then things like diversity and inclusion. How do you think about generational differences? How do you think about diversity in general as a team driver of performance?

And then the third pillar is what I call the constants, which are things like navigating through change and thinking about strategy and how you should implement a strategy. Those are constant in the sense that they never go away, and they run through both the hardware and the software elements. So, that's kind of the thinking behind the book.

Tom Dunlop

It's a very powerful concept actually that, to categorise the different areas in that mindset.

I think one of the areas that has received a lot of attention recently, and I presume this, I guess, goes across all three of those pillars, is also legal operations. It's obviously a very big focus area at the minute, and I think a lot of it is probably censored around data collection, analytics, and trying to get the legal team to be a little bit more data centric.

So, I guess how do you think that will impact the legal industry? And I guess, to follow that, what are the kind of, key data collection points do you feel are important for a progressive and forward-thinking legal team?

Bjarne Tellmann

Yeah, look, I mean, legal operations is a really important part of a modern legal team. I think. I think at some level, you know, and maybe there's a really important piece to what I just said previously, when you're thinking about your team and you're thinking about it, particularly in the context of the legal department, you have to step back and really think about what you do as a business within a business.

So, you are as the General Counsel, effectively the CEO of a legal services firm that provides services to one client. And if you think about it that way, you really have to think about technology and process optimisation as critical components to driving that team forward. And legal, you know, legal operations, plays a key role there.

I do think, you know, what you're seeing is a gradual shift or evolution away from, you know, perhaps the baseline notice -- sorry, the baseline notion of legal operations and legal technology as an efficiency enhancer. You know, I think if you go back five years ago or maybe even three years ago, I think legal operations was typically viewed as, you know, a group that would help the legal department enhance its efficiency in terms of sorting and organising information and becoming… enabling the department to become more efficient.

That's still there but I think that that is very much a baseline and I think instead, over the last few years, we've come to realise that legal technology and legal operations should be there to help us capture data and leverage data as a game changer - in terms of generating insights, in terms of moving our gaze from, you know, the navel gazing approach that we had five years ago of just looking at legal department efficiency and, instead, looking over at the at the commercial partner at the company and asking, you know, how can we leverage technology and data and insights in ways that will enable us to be more effective strategic partners for the business? And help the company achieve its objectives?

And so that shift has profound implications, not just for the legal operations team, but I think, for the legal department as a whole. And, indeed, it's a journey that, it's not just a journey that the department is on, it's a journey that most companies are on, right? Most companies are kind of in parallel with all this. Companies are beginning to realise that same wisdom in terms of what data can achieve, what data can do, what technology can do. And you know it requires a very different organisational architecture, I think. Companies need to sort their data into lakes, right? And they need to be able to build APIs and use cases off of those, and they need organisational structures and capabilities to mine that information, to leverage it in ways that are appropriate.

And so, I think as companies are moving towards becoming, what some people might term, AI factories, legal departments will need to move along that same trajectory and shift their structures. And I think legal operations has a world of challenge ahead of it in moving the department and empowering the GC to lead the department into those new areas and those new vistas.

Tom Dunlop


How do you balance the act between, this is one thing I struggled with, was being a genuine commercial advisor and essentially, like you say, running your own business within a business but always ensuring, ultimately, you are the voice of risk?

Do you have your own kind of mission statement as a department that kind of aligns with the business' overall mission statement? How does that work?

Bjarne Tellmann

Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Look, you've got to be able to, you've got to be able to do all of it, right? And I think that's one of the challenges, with being a General Counsel is there's so many different tasks you need to focus on at once. You need to be part of the business leadership. And at the same time, you need to be the voice of risk and I think much of the job really entails navigating risk, helping the business, and helping leaders in the business to entertain projects that entail risk at various levels.

And if you get it wrong, if you're too conservative, if you're thinking just like a lawyer, you know, and only like a lawyer, then I think what you end up with is an ultraconservative department that is hamstringing or hogtying or whatever you wanna call it… preventing the business from achieving its objectives, preventing it from taking any risk. And on the other hand, if you get too loose or you forget the fact that you are the voice of risk, then you end up potentially blowing up the company or enabling it to kind of walk off a collective cliff.

So, I think it's about striking that balance, and part of it is a personal way that you show up, questions that you ask. I think one of the great differences between lawyers and business professionals is that you know, while business professionals are trained, at least my impression when I was in business school, is that business professionals are often trained to give the right answers and I think lawyers are trained to ask the right questions, and that's a powerful difference, and it's something you shouldn't forget. But then, as you, kind of, double-click and you get to the legal department, you do need to also think about how does the department fit within that and there there's the organisational configuration.

I think, you know, the company has a broad purpose, why it exists as a company, what it exists to do. I think that, you know, we in the legal department need to align our purpose with the company's purpose, right? We can't exist independent of the company's purpose. But we do have ways that we can devise our mission and our strategic priorities in terms of, how do we enable that? How do we align ourselves effectively with the company's purpose? That might be specific to the department and there may be things that we should think about there. What is it that we're uniquely capable of doing? and what do we need in order to do that? And that's sort of a separate conversation that's much more internal to the legal department.

Of course, we also need to reach out and engage with clients and make sure that what we're developing is something they need, and they want. But there certainly is there, I think, an organisational discussion that needs to be had inside the department around, all right, so we're aligned with this purpose, how do we tackle it?

Tom Dunlop

I really like that distinction between, I guess, business side… ask it or finding the answers, always ask the right questions, that's a really, really clear distinction in my mind.

So, in terms of looking forward then I guess, you know, this is our kind of final question, really. Which is, what's changing the game in legal, I guess generally, or specific to house at the minute for you?

Bjarne Tellmann

Yeah. Look, I mean, you know, I think an enormous amount is changing and much of it is being driven by technology, it's being driven by digital disruption, as I mentioned.

I think if you step back and you look at the at the profession and where we are at the moment, you know, technology usage is exploding, and legal organisations of all stripes are kind of evolving to meet the needs of, the changing needs of business. And I think what that's doing is it's giving rise to new players in the profession.

So, alternative legal service providers in particular, are emerging in all areas, and they are gradually, you know, I think if you think about it gradually, the legal value chain is kind of coming undone and pieces of that value chain are increasingly being farmed out to the most efficient provide. And alternative legal service providers are playing, I think a key role in harvesting and capturing some of that value. Whereas previously that value was kind of all in that legal department, law firm dynamic, now I think you're seeing many new players emerging, capturing value in different ways. So that's one big change.

I think the other is that, you know, the needs of the profession as that dynamic evolves is moving towards new skills, new job categories, right? So, we have multidisciplinary teams coming to the scene in both in law firms and in legal departments, as well as ALSPs, right? So, you have people with expertise in project management and data analytics and legal operations.

And I think also a rise that is related to that in the importance of soft skills, you know, if you look at the way that most prognosticators are looking at jobs of the future, they're focused on human skills, they're focused on learning strategies, they're focused on emotional intelligence, on creativity and originality, judgement and decision making, complex problem solving. So, things that you don't necessarily learn, you know, in law school, I think are becoming increasingly important to success as a legal professional.

So, those are some of the things that I think are coming on the scene.

And then maybe lastly, to say, I really do think data, the centricity of data and the value that that brings to lawyering in the 21st century is going to become absolutely front and centre over the next 10 years. That means things like predictive litigation analytics, things like, more accurate time cost and bottleneck estimates for, you know, transactional work, more effective playbooks and other templates and resources, better visibility between people in a legal organisation, better alignment of workloads, better oversight and control of costs. We have to get better as professionals in managing those costs - our clients expect nothing less.

And I think over time there's going to be a rise in, as I've said earlier, you know, data-driven insights that help us to evaluate contractual terms to determine the probability of winning a lawsuit, to enhance the competitiveness of our negotiating positions, to create capacity, to change culture in our teams to become more metrics driven. And ultimately also, hopefully down the line to generate revenue from IP licensing, from, you know, litigation strategies, etcetera.

So, those are some of the things that I think are happening. Emergence of technology, the disintegration of the value chain and the capture of it by by others, the change in terms of the kinds of talents and skills that lawyers need, and ultimately the centricity of data, and the role that that's going to play in the law firm or legal department of the 21st century.

Tom Dunlop

Brilliant and all, actually kind of bright future for legal. I there's a lot of doom and gloom about the future legal services but a lot of different skill sets, a lot of new roles and a bigger, kind of, I guess, value chain with different people and different providers. Well, thank you very much for your time and this has been really interesting.

Bjarne Tellmann

Hey, thank you. Really appreciate the opportunity.

Legal Disrupters

Graeme Smith

Bjarne Tellman in conversation with Tom Dunlop there on the last in the current series of Legal Disrupters. Thank you so much for joining us over this series. We're back later on this year with more. We'll see you then.

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About the author

Tom Dunlop

As an accomplished commercial and technology lawyer, Tom's experience with reviewing contracts was the catalyst that led to Summize. Prior to this, he worked as a Global Legal Director for several fast-growth technology companies.
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