We continue our monthly column, “Curious Minds”, created by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.
In this column, Rose speaks with Petra van Hilst, co-founder of General Counsel Netherlands (GCN) and EQUAL in LEGAL, about being influenced by a world of engineers, making up your own mind, and getting ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Rose Ors: Who are the leaders and thinkers outside the legal industry that have most influenced you and your work?
Petra van Hilst: The people who have most influenced me in my work are the engineers I am surrounded by in my personal life.
Engineers have a systems-based approach to solving problems. They take a complex problem and separate it into its essential elements. They are both curious and methodical because one of their fundamental roles is to find better ways to do things. Engineers also know how to effectively collaborate because a necessary part of their process includes experimentation and iteration.
So, my world of engineers has offered me a master class on how to think more objectively and methodically. This in turn has influenced how I think and how I approach innovation in the legal industry.
Rose Ors: Are there other influencers?
Petra van Hilst: I try to follow the advice of Marva Collins, the American-born educator who counseled, “Trust yourself. Think for yourself. Act for yourself. Speak for yourself. Be yourself. Imitation is suicide.”
I think women more than men listen to and follow the advice of other people. While it is always important to be open to the opinions of others, it is equally important to listen to one’s inner voice. I seek input from others; but, especially on personal matters, I ultimately think independently and make up my own mind about things.
Rose Ors: As a leader, what books have influenced how you think about leadership?
Petra van Hilst: One of my favorite books is Charismatic Leadership by Kevin Murray. Most people think charisma is some special magnetism that only a chosen few are born with. Murray maintains that charisma is a learnable skill — the result of developing specific behaviors. In reading his book and hearing him speak, I identified two behaviors that all charismatic leaders possess: they are empathetic, and they are great listeners.
Rose Ors: What is a source of your creativity?
Petra van Hilst: I was born and raised in the Netherlands, but I have also lived and worked in the U.S. and Brazil. Experiencing three different cultures has stimulated my right-brain thinking and hence my creativity. Living abroad and working for international companies also cemented my long-held belief in the value of diversity in its broadest sense.
Rose Ors: Is this one reason you launched EQUAL in LEGAL?
Petra van Hilst: Yes. I believe we must galvanize the international legal ecosystem to share best practices and experiment with new approaches that get us closer to achieving equality around the globe.
We launched EQUAL in LEGAL because we need to find solutions to pressing issues such as diversity and inclusion, access to justice, and sustainability. I believed others were as passionate as I about these social impact topics, and I was correct.
Since launching EQUAL in LEGAL this past February, more than 100 general counsel, law firms, and others have joined the cause. By joining, they’ve committed to sharing ideas, stories, and practices on what has worked and what can be done better.
Rose Ors: In 2009, you also launched the General Counsel Netherlands network. What need did you fill with GCN?
Petra van Hilst: Ten years ago, there was no platform for general counsel in the Netherlands to gather, exchange ideas, and offer mutual support. I was a GC at the time, as was the GCN co-founder, Michiel van Straaten. We started GCN as a way to learn from other GCs what was working for them.
While the initial emphasis was on sharing best practices, the organization blossomed into a way to develop personal connections and professional friendships. These personal ties foster an environment that allows us to push people out of their comfort zones and think about how to do things very differently.
Rose Ors: What’s a big-picture question facing the legal industry?
Petra van Hilst: What will the legal industry do to be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? As the next logical step to the digital revolution — the Third Revolution — the Fourth Industrial Revolution is about setting the stage for businesses to develop exponentially, transforming entire systems of production, management, and governance.
As I noted before, the number of technological breakthroughs and the speed in which they are being deployed in this latest revolution have no historical precedent. The impact is being felt in almost every industry and in almost every country.
Yet the legal industry has been slow to recognize and adapt to the changes that the breakthroughs mandate. To thrive, the legal space must change “how things are done.” It is no longer efficient or cost effective to use centuries-old processes.
Rose Ors: Who should drive the change?
Petra van Hilst: I believe that it is the general counsel who is uniquely positioned to drive the necessary changes. They bear the ultimate responsibility for managing their department’s budget, and, therefore, they have the greatest incentive to modernize not only the legal department but the industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.