Talking to Claire Bibby, Senior Vice President Legal & General Counsel at Brookfield, Australia.
We are delighted to have talked to Claire Bibby, Senior Vice President Legal & General Counsel, Brookfield, Australia.
Claire discusses how the role of a legal team has changed and gives us a snapshot of how her and her Brookfield team operate, her thoughts on future legal trends and her support of philanthropic causes.
LOD: Hi Claire, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Can you start by telling us a little about your current role and your team?
Claire: Brookfield is one of the world’s largest global alternative asset managers and I have been a part of their team for over 12 years. With almost 4,000 internal clients that I advise with a team of 9 people, we are kept immensely busy. The best word to describe our practice is that it’s like a kaleidoscope. The colourful nature and variety of legal issues that we deal with, set against a backdrop of the strength and processes of working in a global business like Brookfield, is such that we never have a Groundhog Day. At the same time, Brookfield has given me a stage to use my position to advance causes of personal importance, both inside and outside of the company, including various initiatives to support Brookfield women, working families, diversity and philanthropic causes.
LOD: The role of General Counsel has shifted in recent years from pure technical legal work to a more commercial and strategic focus. Can you comment on how this has impacted you and your role?
C: I sometimes feel like I’m running a mini law firm inside a corporate structure. We use external lawyers to help and support us with the work we don’t either have the time or resources to do ourselves. As in-house lawyers, there is a lot of pressure on us from the business to continually add value in different ways and be responsive to how our service delivery may need to adapt. A lot of the work we brief out we could do ourselves, but that’s not what our job is. One of the best ways we add value is to be deeply embedded in the business and its culture, and know what it is that our client’s want. We steer away from giving commercial advice, for just as we don’t want the business giving legal advice, I don’t want my team doing other people’s jobs either. Giving strategic advice is part of the core of our role and is at my core. Giving effective strategic advice is a skill you hone after having had years of experience and being much more aware of the bigger end-game and how to get there.
LOD: In your opinion, have legal teams become an indispensable part of an organisation, and if so, why?
C: It depends on so many things and I would never say we are indispensable. No one really is indispensable in business. However, at the end of the day in-house legal is a service provider to its clients and therefore must give them great service, otherwise they won’t survive – internal clients will go elsewhere, or you’ll find yourself going elsewhere. It’s very easy, but unnecessary, for legal to be a bottleneck or purely a cost centre.
“No one really is indispensable in business… It’s very easy, but unnecessary, for legal to be a bottleneck or purely a cost centre.”
LOD: Are there particular types of legal issues that you routinely refer to outside counsel? What kind of matters do you tend to handle in-house?
C: My role changes every day and my team and I can’t personally service every one of our 4,000 client’s legal needs from beginning to end. We do our very best to add value where we can, but also make the best use of our external counsel. Every day we look at a wide array of legal topics, all of which our clients feel should be our top priority that day. To be great in-house, you need to know what it is that you don’t know and where to get it.
LOD: What is important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?
C: In my view that is easy – be succinct, be savvy and be sophisticated in your thinking. In-house counsel need to know what it is that is important for the senior leaders to be advised of, for they very often don’t have time to get into the weeds. I recommend that in-house lawyers don’t risk losing the attention of the person they are advising by giving waffly advice that doesn’t enable them to make decisions. Giving a war and peace legal advice to a senior leader and not giving them clear direction isn’t going to win you any favours.
LOD: How do you believe your legal team contributes to Brookfield’s growth?
C: From a financial perspective, I recognise that in-house legal are often seen purely as a cost centre and may only get called in to work on a transaction once the commercial deal has already been done. My team do not work that way – we have spent a lot of time getting the trust of the broader Brookfield team by demonstrating the value we add early on. We work with the broader business from the inception of a deal and have a seat at the table when bridges (so to speak) are being built – we are quick thinkers, being skilled at listening, negotiating, compromising and understanding the needs of the business. We have proactively sought to redefine the role of the Brookfield in-house lawyer to be a true business partner and be able to walk the walk and talk the talk in tune with the Brookfield business plan.
LOD: What are you seeing in terms of trends in the in-house legal community? Do you believe these trends are merely fads, or will they continue?
C: I see the in-house space growing contemporaneously with the growth of NewLaw, top tier and specialists. Gone are the days when in-house was seen as a paper shuffler or the “hand break to happiness” as one of my colleagues likes to say. It is a privilege to build, develop and manage an in-house legal team. The talent I have been able to bring together at Brookfield is one of the things I am most proud about when I look back on my career to date.
“Gone are the days when in-house was seen as a paper shuffler”
LOD: What do you see the legal department of the future looking like, compared to the way they are structured and operate today?
C: We spend a lot of time being a problem solver for the business – coming up with creative solutions to accomplish tasks, within the letter of the law. Yet we must always remember our duty to the court and the responsibility that comes with the title of “Lawyer”. At Brookfield, protection of our brand and reputation is ranked as our highest global risk. My team and I are empowered by the business to ensure we protect the value of our brand and reputation, and if that means saying no to the business and directing them to another way to achieve a task, we will have no hesitation in doing so. My counsel is such an important overarching duty that cannot be allowed to be watered down, or standards dropped, as service delivery takes advantage of technological developments. “Computer says no” is never going to take precedence over personal service.
“Law can be very black and white and the experiences I have had outside the law help me see the ‘grey’.”
LOD: You mentioned earlier your support of philanthropic causes. Can you tell us more about this?
C: I am a Non-Exec Director for Marist 180, a not-for-profit focused on helping young people at ‘risk’ and their families such as asylum seekers, indigenous populations and children in need. It made sense to get involved with Marist 180 from a legal support perspective given the large property portfolio of the Catholic Church, however it was also in-line with my wanting to get involved in social based services. Both their foster care program and ‘Pete’s Place’ which is an alternative learning environment for young people with unique needs, are such amazing bodies that really help kids in need.
I am also an Entrepreneur Ambassador for Opportunity International who provide microfinance loans and training to those who are living in poverty, to help them get a ‘hand up’. I have also taken part in Volunteer Building Cambodia for some time now.
I am constantly looking at things to see what I can be involved in.
LOD: Would you say your involvement in social services has made you a better lawyer?
C: Good question. Yes, I think it has. I love the law. I get to work on large transactions surrounding large shiny buildings and that excites me, but it doesn’t feed my soul. Law can be very black and white and the experiences I have had outside the law help me see the ‘grey’. Brookfield really supports me in my philanthropic pursuits and I have been able to pass on my enthusiasm for this to my team, who also undertake charity work. Not because they feel they have to, but because they genuinely want to.
Claire on a recent visit to Cambodia for her building houses cause.
LOD: What do you see as the main opportunities and the main challenges for you and your team for the remainder of 2017?
C: The main opportunities for us are continuing to be innovative and to take educated risks. We recently hired a Legal Operations Officer to help us work smarter and faster. That’s a global trend that is developing in the in-house space and I see that growing.
Of course, our biggest challenge remains that work places are stressful at the best of times; even more so, work places that include legal practitioners, where we work on highly pressurised, highly complex, deals that often have tight deadlines. Our clients rely on us to protect their legal position, whilst facilitating getting a deal done. We should all know by now that lawyers are disproportionately at risk of psychological distress and this is an area I am passionate about raising the awareness of; as should all good legal leaders as we are a people industry.
“We recently hired a Legal Operations Officer to help us work smarter and faster. That’s a global trend that is developing in the in-house space and I see that growing.”
LOD: You have rolled out some specific wellbeing best practice guidelines, can you tell us more about that?
C: In 2016, I committed my team to the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation Psychological Wellbeing Best Practice Guidelines. The TJMF promotes psychologically healthy workplaces and through its guidelines it aims to assist organisations to create workplaces that fulfil each of 13 stated psychosocial factors identified as critical to psychological health. In conjunction with my team we are working on a project to consider each factor and implement bespoke responses aimed at our personal betterment. We are very proud of the work we are doing and the changes we have initiated.
LOD: And lastly, what led you to a career in-house?
C: I was a commercial litigator for 8 years before moving in-house, which I have been doing now for over 18 years. Being a litigator taught me the art of negotiation. It gave me a great understanding of the court system and the desire to not leave your destiny in the hands of someone else. However, I wanted to work within a company and be in the middle of deal-making. Moving into my first General Counsel role after a few years in-house gave me a taste of what it was like to be embedded in a business and to be in the thick of it. I love the art and science of negotiating and deal-making.