We continue our regular feature, Upfront & Personal, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal and business community.
Ron Hauben, vice chair and general counsel at Ernst & Young (EY), spoke with Rose Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about his firm’s purpose, focusing on the highest value work, and becoming trusted advisors within the company.
Rose Ors: What professional experiences have shaped your career?
Ron Hauben: I have been inspired by and shaped by EY’s purpose: “Building a better working world.” It is what drives our strategy and informs how we reach critical business decisions. Our purpose is what makes me so proud of being part of EY.
Having worked as a lawyer in the accounting profession for more than 30 years, nearly 18 of those at EY, I have been involved in some of the largest, most complex transactions in the industry, including the merger of two major firms and bet-the-company litigation. These experiences have offered me the chance to work with, and sometimes against, the very best lawyers in the country.
Rose Ors: Could you say more about EY’s purpose?
Ron Hauben: “Building a better working world” is our North Star. It informs whom we serve, how we serve them, and why we serve them. It recognizes that our responsibility goes beyond meeting our clients’ needs. As auditors, we have a responsibility to serve the investing public, regulators, and other stakeholders.
My role, and indeed the role of each member of our legal department, is to protect and enable the business.
Our role is unique because what we do is critical to the effective functioning of capital markets. It is a special privilege that comes with special responsibilities.
Rose Ors: What is your contribution as the general counsel of one of the Big Four?
Ron Hauben: My role, and indeed the role of each member of our legal department, is to protect and enable the business. Doing so requires that we consider the law, the opportunity, and the risk of a business decision. We have to balance the risk and reward of any critical decision, whether it is launching a new business unit, an acquisition, deciding to settle or litigate a case, or a talent initiative. The balancing act is crucial.
Rose Ors: How critical is understanding the business?
Ron Hauben: It is fundamental to success. I tell the lawyers on my team that their highest value is achieved when they truly understand our business. It is not enough to be an excellent legal technician. Why? Because I want them to be trusted advisors to the people in our business units. You become a trusted advisor when others know you truly understand their challenges and goals. Not just the problem at hand, but the more holistic perspective of “What are we trying to accomplish?” — answering the what requires a robust understanding of the business.
Rose Ors: What lessons do you share with your legal team?
Ron Hauben: It is much easier for a lawyer to say “No” when they identify a risk than it is to say “Yes.” My focus has been on building a legal team that understands that a business succeeds by responsible risk-taking. More readily accepting risk is the most significant cultural change our team has made.
I also counsel the lawyers on my team to focus on the work that adds the highest value to the organization. For example, if a seasoned lawyer spends 50% of her time on things that a junior lawyer or a paralegal can do, she is diluting her value. Alternatively, if she spends 100% of her time working on matters only she or someone more senior can do, she enhances her contribution to the organization.
My message has landed. The team has matured in how they staff their matters and how they leverage our people and technology to be both efficient and high value. As a result, our lawyers’ personal brand and our brand as a legal department have been enhanced.
Rose Ors: Why is a personal brand important when you have a captive client?
Ron Hauben: Even with a captive client, each lawyer still needs to establish and deepen their relationships with their colleagues and the business units. A lawyer’s personal brand equals his institutional reputation, which is closely tied to being viewed as a trusted advisor.
Rose Ors: In your view, what are the critical attributes to being a legal professional today?
Ron Hauben: Professional ethics and integrity have always been must-haves. You can’t be an effective lawyer unless you are perceived as having both. Another table-stakes criterion is being an exceptional legal technician with strong business acumen. And probably most important is the ability to develop relationships of trust and confidence, in which your client wants to hear what you have to say because they believe you add value to their decision-making.
Rose Ors: Describe your leadership approach.
Ron Hauben: First of all, I want to hear the voices of my colleagues. I listen to what they have to say, and I am never put off by someone challenging my perspective. I think it makes for a richer discussion and a better decision when others are comfortable saying, “I hear you, but I disagree” or “Have you considered X?”
I’m a big fan of people sharing their viewpoints, asking questions, and raising concerns. I also am a big believer in letting people stretch themselves — and that means occasionally making mistakes. My approach is to offer candid feedback on what has been done well and what needs improvement.
I try to be selective in what I get involved with. I respect our chain of command and let people run their practices. In our legal department, lawyers take ownership of their matters because projects usually are assigned to individuals rather than teams. At the same time, we have a collaborative culture where people are comfortable seeking advice from others.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give lawyers who aspire to become general counsels?
Ron Hauben: I would advise them to become generalists because as a general counsel, they need a 360-degree view of the world. They don’t have to be able to do everything, but they need to understand everything. They need to understand the litigation risks of a business transaction and the business risks of a litigation strategy or a regulatory matter.
I would also advise them to develop a calming, mature presence. You always want your client to think, “I got this one. We’re going to manage through this together.”
Lastly, I would advise them to take networking seriously. Network inside and outside your organization — it is how you will build critically important relationships and establish your personal brand.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.