How to Build Your Business: Importance of A General Counsel
Being General Counsel requires extensive business expertise that complements comprehensive knowledge about regulations and legislations. Mastering both sectors is a huge task, yet a successful General Counsel makes it look somewhat simple. We speak with Richard Hughes, whose professional background as a Partner in a 103-year-old San Francisco area law firm, tenured college professor, elected official, in house General Counsel, and now as owner of his current firm, has served his clients well.
What do you think are key characteristics to being a General Counsel? How these have characterises seen positive results for your clients?
A General Counsel is part of the upper management team which is working toward corporate objectives, whether it be to acquire property, obtain corporate parental guarantees, negotiate contracts, address environmental and land use issues, or various other issues that companies must overcome. I try to steer my clients through the maze of legal and regulatory issues that may stand in the way of success. A General Counsel should be mindful of risk, but being completely risk-adverse is itself risky in many cases. Upper level management knows well the danger of doing nothing. If the volume of business is any indication, the approach I have taken is working well.
What are the common reasons for clients asking for legal assistance in relation to public utilities law? Why do you think these queries are so common?
A large part of my business is advising public utilities, which are highly-complex, regulated businesses. Like any significant business, utilities must deal with state and federal regulators, local land use, and statutory requirements that may specific to their industry or more general, such as wage and hour laws. As General Counsel, I am a resource which my clients call on when they need guidance in these areas which, unlike most outside legal counsel, means frequent communication, almost daily. This close professional relationship allows me to better anticipate my clients’ needs.
You were one of a handful of attorneys state wide who was asked by the Washington State Department of Ecology and Department of Health to co-author legislation known as the “Joint Municipal Utilities Services Act,” RCW 39.106; can you speak about this process and the challenges which arose during this process?
These state regulators saw a need to allow utilities to come together and form joint agencies to better serve the rate paying public. They put together a team of legal and subject matter experts to study the need and propose legislative solutions, resulting in a small group of utility attorneys who wrote this legislation. As you can imagine, the draft legislation went through many iterations before being finalised. It was very satisfying professionally to work with industry leaders to enact a new law that allowed utilities to better serve their ratepayers.
As previous founding co-chair of a productive labour-management committee, can you share the important methods employers should undergo, in order to avoid litigation in the workplace?
I take the position that relationships between management and labour matter. The typical positional method of bargaining does not work well in today’s economy. In positional bargaining, each side only attempts to pursue their own needs and wants, without regard to its negative impact on labour-management relations. I have applied, and spoken to large groups of CEOs and Human Resources Directors, about collaborative bargaining that focuses on interests rather than positions. I became interested in this approach after reading a great book entitled “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” by Fisher and Ury. Using this collaborative approach is not without risk but I have witnessed lots of success.
Moreover, how have you seen workplace discrimination and the legal process involved in such cases, change over the years? Would you say clients are more aware of their rights in the internet era?
I have seen discrimination cases increase significantly over my 30 years of practicing law. This is in large part because of greater awareness of workplace rights through media such as cable television and the internet. Further, I see less “quid pro quo” (this for that) discrimination claims and more hostile environment and retaliation claims. Many employers today have anti-bullying policies that are a relatively new source of workplace litigation. I spend a lot of time with my corporate clients working defensively on projects such as executive training, a clear hiring process, and updating employee handbooks and other policies to address the current workplace environment.
Have you seen any trends occur over the years in relation to your work as a General Counsel? How have you addressed these trends?
Corporate clients want General Counsel who possess a business background and can look at the big picture. They want to know the risks of a particular course of action and whether alternatives exist that could achieve the same objective while meeting legal and regulatory requirements. Clients want long-term relationships with their General Counsel who can then learn their business and the environment in which they operate. Their General Counsel need to have sufficient credibility so when they advise to take a particular course of action, or to avoid a course of action, clients believe it is in their best interest to do so.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is an exciting time to work with corporate and utility clients in the booming Seattle-area economy. Readers are welcome to contact me if they want more information. Thank you for seeking me out and providing a platform to discuss my practice.
Law Office of Richard L. Hughes PLLC
324 West Bay Drive NW, Suite 201
Olympia, WA 98502
Rick Hughes is the owner of the Law Office of Richard L. Hughes PLLC in Olympia, Washington, which is in the Seattle area. Through his firm, he is General Counsel to several public agencies, as well as counsel to private corporations, higher education universities, and non-profit corporations. He serves as Seattle-area counsel to foreign companies wanting to take advantage of what cable network CNBC recently called ‘the United States’ top state for business in 2017’. He applies his three decades of experience to assist clients in the areas of contract negotiation, land acquisition, governmental relations, labour and employment law, public utility law, and corporate governance.
Mr. Hughes draws on his 30 years of experience as legal counsel to both private and public entities to assist clients in achieving their objectives. He has also been an elected official, author, college professor, court-appointed arbitrator, and speaker before various professional organizations.
The Law Office of Richard L. Hughes PLLC, was founded on the principle that legal counsel should work as a team with upper management, helping clients through legal and regulatory requirements that help produce a positive outcome. The firm’s location in the Washington State Capital, and proximate to Seattle, is ideal for foreign companies wishing to establish a local presence.