High-Risk Projects: Should lawyers also act as strategic advisors?

By Allan Watton on

high risk projectsComplex projects, by their very nature, often entail high commercial and reputational risks, often additionally governed by extensive legal and regulatory frameworks that could well extend across multiple jurisdictions. They involve a variety of stakeholders, contractual terms and technical demands.

The uncertain environment this creates necessitates a carefully choreographed combination of legal, strategic, technical and business insights for effective decision-making. Generally aligned with the long-term aims of stakeholders, these projects require a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach for adept management and successful outcomes.

Essentially, the right balance must be struck in the interplay between legal and business strategy, so the question is, should lawyers simply respond by saying “We only did what you told us, Guv” or should they also be expected to act as strategic business advisors?

This article includes the following :

  • The Strategic Lawyer: Beyond the Legal Jargon
  • A Strategic Mindset: A Catalyst for Problem-Solving
  • Building Legal Partnerships: Fostering Trust, Engagement and Value
  • Navigating the Labyrinth: What Makes a Good Senior Lawyer for a High-Stakes Project

The Strategic Lawyer: Beyond the Legal Jargon

With high-stakes complex business projects, the right kind of strategic legal advice can be transformational. We find that when the role of legal advisory morphs from being a ‘compliance watchdog’ or even a team of ‘police’ whose primary answer is to say ‘no’, to a strategic business partner who works innovatively around constraints to say ‘yes’, the concept of ‘strategic lawyer’ emerges as a confluence of legal expertise and business acumen. This can be instrumental in navigating all parties through the complexities of such projects.

  • Simplification of the Legal Landscape. The legal terrain of strategic projects means that new challenges often reveal themselves as you progress. Some lawyers stand out for their ability to demystify this complexity for their clients. Their knack for simplifying the conveyance of legal processes and identifying risks – making these comprehensible to stakeholders – is a testament to the value of clear, jargon-free communication. This aspiration for clarity is not about diluting the legalities, it is about ensuring that stakeholders have a clearer understanding of the legal landscape so they can facilitate informed decision-making.
  • Practical Legal Advisory. The ability to provide practical legal advice that is grounded in the reality of the business landscape is valuable, but unfortunately all too rare in our experience. For instance, in multi-jurisdictional projects, the legal advisory needs to be cognisant of not only the legal requisites across different geographies but also the business implications of these legal frameworks​​. The ability to provide practical, actionable legal advice, tailored to the unique needs and challenges of the project, distinguishes a strategic lawyer from a traditional legal advisor.
  • Bridging the Legal – Business Divide. The divide between the legal and business domains often becomes a chasm that hinders effective communication and alignment between legal advisors and business stakeholders. A strategic lawyer bridges this divide by understanding the commercial objectives, the competitive landscape and the business risks inherent in the complexities of the project. This understanding enables the lawyer to align the legal strategy with the business objectives, ensuring that the legal advisory is not just compliant but also commercially prudent.
  • Facilitating Informed Decision-making. The essence of legal advisory in strategic projects encompasses risk management, strategic alignment and informed decision-making. By explaining the legal risks and implications in a manner that is accessible to stakeholders, a strategic lawyer facilitates clear business assessment.

The concept of a strategic lawyer encapsulates a paradigm where legal advisory is not siloed but is instead integrally intertwined with the business strategy. It’s about fostering a collaborative, communicative and commercially aligned legal advisory framework that navigates through the legal complexities while ensuring alignment with the commercial objectives and strategic goals of high-risk business projects.

A Strategic Mindset: A Catalyst for Problem-solving

A legal advisory approach that transcends traditional risk aversion embraces problem-solving and innovation. A strategic mindset in legal practitioners serves as a catalyst, fostering a proactive, solution-oriented legal advisory framework. So, what are the specific benefits of such a mindset?

  • Proactive Problem-solving. Unlike traditional legal frameworks that might erect barriers, a strategic mindset seeks to safely and constructively work around them, facilitating the advancement of innovative business solutions. This proactive ethos is also manifested in legal advisories, where legal practitioners with a strategic mindset play a pivotal role in navigating complex legal and commercial challenges, ultimately facilitating successful reorganisation strategies​.
  • Commercially Aligned Advisory. Strategic legal practitioners exhibit a deep understanding of the commercial objectives underlying the business projects they advise on. This understanding enables the provision of legal advice that is not only compliant but also aligned with the commercial imperatives of the project. By viewing legal challenges through a commercial lens, strategic lawyers can provide solutions that are pragmatic and conducive to the business’s strategic objectives.
  • Innovativeness in Legal Strategy. Lawyers with a strategic mindset are adept at devising safely pioneering legal strategies that align with the project’s innovative ethos, often providing their clients with a competitive advantage. Whether it’s crafting novel contractual frameworks to better align with the client’s business outcomes or exploring uncharted legal pathways to facilitate business objectives, a strategic mindset can foster a culture of innovativeness in legal advisory.
  • Agile Response to Evolving Challenges. The landscape of strategic business projects is often characterised by ever-changing challenges that demand an agile legal response. Strategic lawyers, with their ability to quickly adapt to developing circumstances and devise prompt legal solutions, play a crucial role in ensuring that the legal advisory remains relevant and responsive to the project’s dynamic nature.
  • Fostering Collaborative Relationships. A strategic mindset encourages collaborative relationships between legal advisors and business stakeholders. By engaging in a dialogue that transcends legal jargon to encompass business realities, strategic lawyers facilitate a collaborative approach to problem-solving. This united ethos is often instrumental in ensuring that the legal advisory is integrated with the business strategy, creating a conducive environment for the successful execution of strategic business projects.

Building Legal Partnerships: Fostering Trust, Engagement and Value

In our experience of working with hundreds of both in-house and external legal practices, the establishment of trusting partnerships between the legal advisory and business stakeholders is pivotal for collaborative problem-solving and successful project execution. This can be achieved through a combination of:

  • Transparency in Fee Structuring. A transparent fee structure lays the foundation for a trusting relationship between legal advisors and business stakeholders. Clarity on how the fee structure works, including the basis for charges and any additional costs, alleviates concerns about hidden charges and facilitates budgetary planning.
  • Engagement in Advisory Process. Engagement of legal advisors in the strategic discourse of the project fosters a deeper understanding of the project’s objectives, risks, and challenges. An engaged advisory approach ensures transparency, predictability and accountability for project results, facilitating informed decision-making by administrators and boards​. This level of engagement enables legal advisors to provide advice that is not only legally sound but also strategically aligned with the project’s objectives.
  • Establishing Long-term Partnerships. When legal advisors are viewed as strategic partners rather than mere compliance overseers, a collaborative ethos is fostered. This collaborative approach facilitates a harmonious working relationship where legal advisory is in sync with the project’s evolving objectives and challenges.
  • Value-Driven Advisory. A transparent and engaged legal advisory approach pivots towards a value-driven advisory framework. This framework encompasses a broader spectrum of advisory services that add tangible value to the project. Whether it’s providing insights on risk management, facilitating strategic alignment or offering innovative legal solutions to complex challenges, a value-driven advisory approach ensures that the legal advisory contributes meaningfully to the project’s success.
  • Building Trust Through Open Communication. Open communication about the fee structure, the scope of advisory services and expectations from both sides fosters a climate of trust. Trust, in turn, lays the groundwork for a collaborative relationship where legal advisors and business stakeholders work in tandem towards the successful fruition of the strategic business project.

Navigating the Labyrinth: What Makes a Good Senior Lawyer for a High-stakes Project

We, at BPG, have been involved in nearly 600 strategically complex projects. We find that projects that carry with them high commercial and reputational risk, demand a legal advisory that is strategically business-focused. Our experience is that senior lawyers should not merely be legal advisors but strategic partners, navigating the intricacies of law, business and risk.

It will probably come as no surprise, therefore, that over the past 24 years we have worked with hundreds of legal individuals. Some of the most impressive legal minds we have come across – those who we have seen act as true ‘strategic critical friends’ to the clients they advise – are (in alphabetical surname order):

No.NameFirmSpecialism where BPG has been involved
1Roger BickerstaffBird & BirdProject dispute advice
2Paul CarneyShoosmithsPensions regulation and disputes in both the private and public sector
3Dai DavisPercy Crow Davis & CoIntellectual property advice
4Philippa DempsterFreeths LLPProject dispute advice
5Lee GluyasCMSProject dispute advice
6Paul GoldingTRG LawProject advisory
7Richard Mawrey KCHenderson ChambersProject dispute advice
8Pearse RyanIdeasCreateReality.comIrish law, ex-Arthur Cox. Project advisory
9Jeremy SteeleKnights plcCommercial property development, leasing and disputes
10Peter Susman KCHenderson ChambersProject dispute advice

This is not to suggest that other legal individuals we have worked with are any less capable, but these are the individuals who stand out as exemplars in our experience.

So what are the most useful attributes of senior lawyers that a client should look for in this regard:

  1. Strategic Thinking:

    • Risk Assessment: Ability to identify, assess and mitigate legal risks in alignment with the project’s strategic objectives.
    • Commercial Awareness: Understanding the commercial implications of legal decisions, ensuring that legal strategies are commercially viable.
  2. Problem-Solving Ability:

    • Innovative Solutions: Ability to devise innovative legal solutions to complex challenges.
    • Proactive Approach: Anticipating potential legal hurdles and devising strategies to overcome them.
  3. Expertise and Experience:

    • Deep Legal Knowledge: Profound understanding of the legal frameworks governing the project.
    • Industry Experience: Practical experience in the industry, understanding its unique challenges and operational nuances.
    • Past Case Handling: A track record of successfully handling complex, high-stakes projects, providing invaluable insights derived from past experiences.
  4. Communication Skills:

    • Clarity: Ability to explain complex legal issues in simple, understandable terms.
    • Active Listening: Understanding the client’s concerns, objectives and expectations to provide tailored legal advice.
  5. Client-Centric Approach:

    • Understanding Client Objectives: A deep understanding of the client’s commercial objectives, risk appetite and strategic goals.
    • Value Addition: Providing legal advice that adds tangible value to the project, aligning legal strategies with the client’s business objectives.
  6. Adaptability:

    • Agility: Ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, evolving project objectives and emerging legal challenges.
    • Continuous Learning: Staying updated with the latest legal developments, industry trends and best practices.
  7. Relationship Building:

    • Trustworthiness: Establishing a trusting relationship with the client, ensuring open communication and collaborative problem-solving.
    • Team Collaboration: Working harmoniously with other advisors, stakeholders and project teams, fostering a collaborative approach to project execution.
  8. Ethical Integrity:

    • Professional Ethics: Adhering to the highest standards of professional ethics, ensuring transparency and accountability.
    • Conflict Resolution: Navigating conflicts of interest with integrity, ensuring the client’s interests are protected.


Complex business projects necessitate a shift in legal advisory towards a strategic partnership relationship, given the intricate operational and regulatory terrains they navigate.

In our experience, the concept of a ‘strategic lawyer’ embodies this shift, promoting a proactive and commercially aligned legal advisory framework. This approach ensures legal strategies are not only compliant but also tailored to address the unique challenges and objectives of the project.

Additionally, the outlined attributes for senior strategic lawyers highlight the importance of a client-centric and value-driven approach in legal advisory for these high-stakes projects.

This focus enhances the alignment between legal strategies and the project’s commercial and strategic goals. It fosters a collaborative environment that is crucial for successfully executing these high-risk business projects, envisioning legal advisors as strategic partners capable of navigating both legal complexities and aligning guidance with the commercial imperatives of the projects.