April 18, 2017

Lincoln Financial Group’s Kirkland Hicks, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, on the Changing Role of the Chief Legal Officer

Kirkland Hicks

In early March, the legal world was rocked by the news that Yahoo General Counsel Ronald Bell had resigned amid the fallout from a serious data breach at the company, essentially taking responsibility for hackers gaining access to data on hundreds of millions of users by admitting that the in-house legal department had not been sufficiently vigilant. This, in a nutshell, illustrates the major evolution in the role of the chief legal officer that began with the Enron scandal and accelerated through the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

"The role has changed in terms of putting the general counsel in the crosshairs," says Kirkland Hicks, executive vice president and general counsel at Lincoln Financial Group in Philadelphia. "General counsel now are viewed as true gatekeepers by regulators and stakeholders. They are held accountable for business failures—there is greater risk, but there are many more rewards."

Hicks has been with Lincoln Financial since 2015. He leads a legal department of 240, including compliance and government affairs professionals. The company provides life insurance, annuities, retirement plan services, employee benefits and advice. Within each of these business units is a chief counsel who reports to Hicks. The legal leadership team also includes the heads of litigation, employment, corporate law, government affairs, distribution, and legal operations.

It is surrounding himself with these subject matter experts and their direct reports that gives Hicks confidence in the Lincoln Financial legal organization and equips him to take on the myriad issues facing the general counsel of a company that earned $1.5 billion in 2016, serving 17 million customers. He tries to be an empowering leader and manager.

"You must be interested in people to succeed in this role," he says. "You have to choose the right people, inspire them, and bring out their best. You have to be flexible in accommodating individual work styles and preferences, and to meet people where they are. In return, they must not be afraid to speak up.

"Having these experts on my team gives me peace of mind and allows me to sleep at night."

Hicks's team at Lincoln Financial includes a head of legal operations, still a relatively new role within in-house legal departments but one that is increasingly important as law departments focus on data analytics to drive improvements. Lincoln Financial recently named a chief digital officer, who is charged with using big data and leveraging technology, among other responsibilities, to re-imagine the customer experience at Lincoln. Hicks sees the opportunity for his own department.

"Like any company, we want to be ahead of the curve. I believe there is more work we can do in the legal department to leverage technology and data to inform our operations. Early in my tenure here, we began talking with our outside counsel about alternative fee arrangements, but it became apparent they were asking questions and requesting data that we could not readily produce," he says. "There is an opportunity for improvement to gain better interaction with firms, and conversely to use their data to drive continuous improvement with respect to other issues that are important to us, such as diversity and inclusion."

In addition to creating a formal legal operations role, Hicks also seized the opportunity for some law firm convergence. When he arrived at Lincoln Financial in 2015, he found a roster of preferred providers that was much too long and "unclear what 'preferred' meant," he says. Further, practically any lawyer in the legal department could engage outside counsel; that has now been centralized mostly to Hicks's direct reports. Lincoln Financial Legal has also engaged some new firms and is using some legal service providers as it strives to derive better value from its legal spend.

Key strategic initiatives for the coming year include supporting the Lincoln Financial digitization initiative, and strengthening and integrating the legal leadership team. Hicks is turning increasingly to his internal team on work in such areas as privacy, and cybersecurity. "We have some of the most talented professional in their areas, and I see even more opportunities to insource legal services," he says. 

Hicks was in private practice early in his career, before joining Watson Wyatt Worldwide in 2000. The company subsequently became Towers Watson, where Hicks served as general counsel from 2012 to 2015, and is now known as Willis Towers Watson. To him, the advantages of in-house practice are clear: "The law firm model is very hierarchical. In-house is so different: You are judged based on the value you bring, not the position you hold or the title you carry. The incentive structures are very different, with different kinds of rewards—the opportunity to make a difference at a very high level, and to be part of the business' success.

"For in-house attorneys aspiring to be chief legal officers, Hicks advises a strong interest and foundation in business principles, citing the Harvard Business School leadership development program as a boon to his career. "Don't be afraid of quantitative information," he says. He also suggests gaining experience leading cross-functional teams and interacting with many different kinds of people.

Finally: "Take a broad view, think about your stakeholders, and ask a lot of questions."

—Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer based in McLean, Virginia. She can be reached at jjsalopek@outlook.com.