The In-House Experience: Interview with Funke Abimbola, General Counsel & Company Secretary, Roche
Funke is a senior leader for Roche, the world’s largest biotech. A practicing solicitor, she leads the legal, corporate compliance, company secretarial and data protection functions supporting Roche’s pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. She is also currently the most senior black lawyer working within the UK’s pharmaceutical industry and one of the most senior globally. A multi award winning solicitor and diversity campaigner, she has received both national and European recognition for her legal and diversity work. She was recently admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, recognizing the positive impact and outstanding contributions that she has made to British society as a whole.
What one change would you make within your in-house legal team that you feel would revolutionise the way you or your team operates?
For us all to be able to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty or as if we are letting the side down! We are a high profile team and the service we provide is in huge demand because of this. It can be really difficult for us to prioritise and there are times when we need to say ‘no’ to certain requests. This often goes with a sense of guilt yet it is impossible to meet all the demands made of us as a team. Setting healthy boundaries and prioritising effectively are key to this.
What is your biggest challenge? What do you think is the biggest challenge for the legal profession in general?
My biggest challenge is not so much a challenge of being a GC but is more to do with the market access challenge that the pharmaceutical industry faces in the UK. By this I mean ensuring that every eligible patient can gain access to medicinal products. The UK healthcare system is a complex reimbursement (payment) environment for manufacturers of medicine, posing some real obstacles to patients wanting access to innovative medicines.
The biggest challenge faced by the legal profession (and I say this from an in-house/client perspective) is that the chargeable hour model within law firms is not sustainable in the long term. To me, the current business model rewards inefficiency and is not a true measure of value added. The firms who will succeed in the long term are those who are able to be flexible with the value proposition that they offer their clients.
What does “adding value” mean to you? What really makes a difference?
‘Adding value’ is about more than simply providing technical expertise. Technical knowledge is a given – a deep, practical understanding of the client’s industry is also absolutely key. In addition to this, ‘adding value’ means providing the client with additional, pro-bono offerings such as bespoke legal training programmes, networking and other opportunities. For example, the client partner at one of our panel law firms recommended me for a speaking engagement at a legal conference recently, knowing that this was of real value to both myself and my team members who would be able to attend the conference. Similarly, I am currently organising a leadership conference for a women’s network that I established and a panel firm is hosting the event and assisting with planning for that event. ‘Adding value’ goes far beyond simply providing legal advice.
There has been a lot of discussion regarding legal project management. What does LPM mean to you?
This is all about driving efficiencies in the manner in which legal services are delivered. This could include anything ranging from ensuring the right level of fee earner is working on the matter, to outsourcing to using technology and case management tools.
How do you think the role of the GC is going to change over the next decade?
GCs will continue to develop as business leaders. They will need to consolidate their knowledge and understanding of the industry in which they operate and be viewed as business leaders by commercial colleagues within their organisations.
With the focus on leadership rather than technical expertise, as the role of GCs evolves, I also hope to see more GCs actually leading organisations rather than leading legal functions. I hope to see an evolution from lawyer to leader over the next decade.
What is your vision for your legal team?
My vision (and this is reflected in our mission statement as a team) is to empower our colleagues in reaching their goals. Far too often, lawyers are seen as the ‘road block’ because we can be used as a last minute resource. We work hard to ensure that we engage with our colleagues as early as possible so that we can operate as an empowered partnership.
Where do you go to for learning and inspiration, or who inspires you?
My parents both really inspired me due to their work ethic, belief in me and the way in which they supported me in reaching my full potential. I look to many sources for learning – work colleagues, members of my external networks, friends and family members. I regularly read inspirational quotes from business and other leaders, anything that will help to motivate me in reaching my goals. Stories about people succeeding against the odds are a constant source of inspiration.
My 13 year old son also inspires me a great deal due to his cheerful, optimistic outlook on life.
What key skills do you look for in your team members?
Technical expertise is essential but the right attitude and approach is also key. I need team members who are pragmatic and commercial in their approach, who have an innovative and creative mind-set and a positive, ‘can do’ attitude. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are also crucial – without these qualities, it is impossible to build strong working relationships or to develop the interpersonal skills that are essential in any professional career.
What innovation could you not do without on a daily basis?
All forms of technology that enable effective communication remotely. I am based just outside London yet much of my voluntary diversity-related work is based in London. Because it would be impossible to attend every single event, I find the use of Twitter, LinkedIn and other communication tools invaluable in helping me to maintain contact with my various networks and build upon relationships.
Google Hangout has also been a revolution to me and has really helped with my mentoring (again, most of my mentees are not based in Hertfordshire where I live and work).
These communication tools have really helped revolutionise my time management and are essential in helping me manage my time.
What innovation would you most like to see that would make your day better?
For technology to develop even further in order to enable even more agile working practices for those with a portfolio career like me.
In addition, in the context of working for a large global organisation, it would be good to see the development of more technologies to enable colleagues to work globally without having to travel as much for meetings, for example, or having to relocate their families to another country in order to work in a global role.
Follow Funke on Twitter on @DiversityChamp1
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