Jennifer Silverman interviews Nicola McCormick of GroupM Worldwide for #RaiseTheVolume on High Performance Counsel.
What are you currently working on?
… I am working with all markets on embedding good privacy governance in all that we do…. we are undergoing something of a revolution in the organization of our tech and data offerings and that throws up many new legal questions and challenges.
JENNIFER: What are your current responsibilities?
NICOLA: I advise GroupM Worldwide, which is the world’s largest media investment business, on all aspects of the day to day business including, client contracting, tech and data, privacy laws and investment practice. I also work closely with the various compliance teams to develop and promote best practices across all our operations. I head up a team of about 85 lawyers around the world.
JENNIFER: What are you currently working on?
NICOLA: The rapidly evolving data privacy laws around the world continue to drive a significant part of my workload and I am working with all markets on embedding good privacy governance in all that we do. Related to that we are undergoing something of a revolution in the organization of our tech and data offerings and that throws up many new legal questions and challenges. We are a very collaborative business, which is fantastic, but it does mean that the lawyers get drawn into a huge range of different discussions to bring their viewpoint.
JENNIFER: What was the path you traveled to reach your current position?
NICOLA: I knew at University that I wanted to focus on Media law and took the first ever Media Law course offered in the UK. However, after law school the legal industry was not doing so well and media jobs were few and far between. I was lucky enough to take a training contract with a boutique white collar criminal practice that was defending some of the very highest profile financial frauds of the day. Lucky because the firm gave even its junior lawyers a high degree of responsibility, so I was dropped in at the deep end and had to work out what to do. That was a great foundation for a later career in house!
Once I qualified I persuaded a recruiter to put me forward for a role at, what was then, WPP PLC’s first external law firm and, despite my criminal training, the firm took a gamble on me and I began my relationship with the WPP group as an external legal advisor. Through 2 law firms and 18 years I remained an external advisor to WPP until their General Counsel called one day and asked if I would like the GroupM Global General Counsel role. I said yes without hesitating and 4 years ago landed here.
JENNIFER: What were the points in your career when you experienced the greatest growth?
NICOLA: The first 4 years– 2 as a trainee and then 2 transitioning to qualified life in an entirely different field. And the most recent 4 when I have been on an exponential learning curve. I thought I knew this business pretty well from the outside but I only had such limited touchpoints that there was an enormous amount to learn. Added to which our industry has undergone fairly seismic changes during that period – including the increasing importance of tech and data.
What are your top recommendations for risk management?
It is also important to have a central means of documenting problems as they arise to enable the identification of trends. The reality is that a small problem could pop up repeatedly in different parts of the business but being small would be resolved locally and not escalated.
JENNIFER: What are your tips for working with the C-Suite?
NICOLA: Don’t write long emails! Listen to the business objectives and try to facilitate them. When you have to say no to something try to present an alternative solution. In fact, it is the approach that I would take with anyone in the organization that I want to listen to my advice.
JENNIFER: What are your top recommendations for risk management?
NICOLA: First and foremost, ensure there is a strong framework for identifying risk – the framework should comprise both a network of people with responsibility for risk management and sets of processes for gathering and disseminating information about risks and their mitigation. It is also important to have a central means of documenting problems as they arise to enable the identification of trends. The reality is that a small problem could pop up repeatedly in different parts of the business but being small would be resolved locally and not escalated. A repeated problem has the propensity to be a symptom of an underlying risk and unless those small problems are joined together it is possible to miss that underlying risk.
JENNIFER: What advice would you give to a first-time GC in your industry?
NICOLA: Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know how it all works. In my experience people are delighted to explain their expertise to you and are very tolerant of newcomers finding it quite overwhelmingly complicated. The important thing is to know how to approach a problem in order to find a solution. Don’t feel that you are expected to have a bag full of solutions under your desk.
JENNIFER: What are the most important qualities you look for when hiring outside counsel?
NICOLA: The qualities are ones that law firms often list as their credentials but don’t deliver on. I want them to approach legal issues from the business perspective. So, if they are negotiating a contract for me I want them to articulate a business reason, relevant to my business, why we should not take responsibility for a particular risk e.g. responsibility for our entire supply chain. I want them to offer informed opinions on how to proceed in the face of a legal uncertainty – I am not interested in pages of advice offering me perspectives on the law but without reaching any conclusion on a sensible way forward (unless I have expressly asked for that!).
Ultimately, I want something different from a specialist tech or competition lawyer than I want from a general commercial lawyer. Commercial lawyers of a good fit are hard to find, my litmus test is whether I would trust them to sit opposite an important client in a key negotiation and collaborate with the client to get to an agreed position whilst reasonably protecting our interests. That’s a combination of whether they are likeable, confident and persuasive in their oral arguments. And if that shopping list isn’t long enough I do like good quality succinct drafting – too often lawyers hide a lack of confidence in over-extended drafting. I want everyone to write like the legendary English Judge Lord Denning.
What are the most important qualities you look for when hiring outside counsel?
…if they are negotiating a contract for me I want them to articulate a business reason, relevant to my business, why we should not take responsibility for a particular risk e.g. responsibility for our entire supply chain
NICOLA: I hesitate at the term “cultural fit” because I think that kind of focus can lead to hiring a homogenous team. I prefer to consider whether I believe the person will be capable of being a trusted advisor in the business. We have a really diverse range of people across our business and that means that I want a diverse range of lawyers so we can speak to everyone. Ultimately though I am really looking for people who show that spark that they want to enjoy coming to work and being part of a networked legal team.
JENNIFER: What is the best part of your job?
NICOLA: The fact that I am able to work with such a wide range of dynamic, creative people. There really is a drive to innovate right across the business– to do all the things we have always done better and to try to do new things. It requires constant review and refinement but means there is never a time when I think my job is done.
Before hiring someone, how do you decide whether they are cultural fit for your company?
We have a really diverse range of people across our business and that means that I want a diverse range of lawyers so we can speak to everyone.
JENNIFER: List 3 adjectives that describe the way you work and lead.
NICOLA: Collaboratively, thoughtfully, decisively.
JENNIFER: What is your most memorable travel experience?
NICOLA: Several years ago, my husband and I went off road in Argentina with two old friends and camped in the Andes. The whole trip is too long to relate but for a driving/hiking trip it involved a lot of eating and drinking: cooking steaks on gaucho knives with the mountain police one evening, making a pizza oven in an abandoned farm building and roasting goat over a campfire- all washed down with a healthy quantity of Malbec.