In-house Insights: an interview with Jonathan Lipman, Mercedes-Benz UK

6th September 2023

Jonathan Lipman, Group General Counsel at Mercedes-Benz UK, spoke to Blake Morgan partner Bruce Potter about running a national department in a global business, how an in-house lawyer can successfully enable innovation, and his commitment to attracting the next generation of legal talent to in-house roles.

Reflecting on his career to date, Jonathan says being an in-house lawyer is a role he has hugely enjoyed. For the last two decades or so, he has worked in the automotive industry, a journey which has led him to the position of Group General Counsel in the UK division of global business Mercedes-Benz.

What is the role of in-house counsel in a sector like this? How can an in-house lawyer support innovation and help the business to navigate challenges around sustainability, while keeping brand front and centre? And in what circumstances does an in-house legal team need support from external lawyers?

On balancing the local with the global

Jonathan says the one thing that has characterised his time as an in-house lawyer is the ability to put everything into context. This means not only considering the overall reputation and direction of a global business while providing advice to colleagues on a local level, but also monitoring how the business is performing and the challenges, opportunities and risks this may bring.

As the head of the UK legal team within a business like Mercedes-Benz, Jonathan needs to consider the overall global approach in the work that he does.

He notes there are certain ways of doing things within a business of this size, and the in-house legal team needs to respect this. However, he says tailoring advice to the environment you’re operating in is essential – in the advice he gives, he takes into account local considerations, local markets and local cultures. Balancing the local with the global can sometimes be a challenge, but the focus is always on finding the right compromise.

Brand is front and centre of Jonathan’s work. A business’ reputation can be changed, enhanced, damaged, and improved in a short time. Protecting the global brand is vital, and this is part of the role of the in-house lawyer. As General Counsel, he says, you need to react quickly to respond to reputational risks, and always consider the brand in the advice you provide.

On what’s needed in the next generation of in-house lawyers

As a lawyer who chose an in-house role from the outset, Jonathan is eager to encourage others to do the same.

“At the beginning many people said to me to get my experience firm-side – at the coal face – but I saw very early on that I would prefer to be within a business, with people all pushing for the same goal.”

Jonathan acknowledges there are now far more in-house lawyers than there ever used to be. He’s now focused on attracting the next generation of legal talent and says with years of experience, one begins to realise who the right sort of person is for this role. He says technical skills can be taught, but what’s important is who they are as people.

They need to be prepared to get stuck in and turn their hand to anything. They need to have a commercial mindset, think practically and be thorough. Ultimately, they need to be able to translate their knowledge into advice for colleagues, delivered in the right way.

Jonathan says his team is close-knit and works collaboratively to provide advice to the wider business. One key project that springs to mind is when Mercedes-Benz changed its passenger car division to an agency model selling vehicles, rather than a distribution model. Not so much appeared to change on the surface, but there was a lot of work done by his team behind the scenes to ensure the process ran smoothly. Jonathan notes how challenging this was, but how proud he was of what the team achieved.

On navigating challenges and opportunities

Like most companies, Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) is high on the agenda at Mercedes-Benz, and as such is front and centre of Jonathan’s mind as he leads the UK legal team. He says every decision he advises on is now with ESG in mind – from whether to print a document through to which supplier to appoint for a new contract.

Jonathan knows the automotive sector needs to tackle sustainability head on. Of course, the sector is going electric, with vehicles now increasingly powered by batteries rather than internal combustion engines, but Mercedes-Benz is looking at this more holistically, he says. It is also addressing how it manufactures its vehicles and is building factories to be as environmentally-friendly as possible, including its Factory 56 in Germany which Jonathan recently visited. It feeds self-generated green electricity into its supply through solar PV and has implemented various measures for reducing energy consumption.

To limit its impact on the environment, and lead the charge for the automotive sector, the business has had to innovate and find new ways of operating.

For an in-house legal team, the challenge is balancing caution with support for innovation, providing protection while adapting to revolutionary changes in the market.

What’s important to Jonathan is for his team to give advice that enables transformation and positive change, but in a considered way. He never wants his team to be the ‘department of no’ but to give sound legal advice whether supporting innovation, or advising care in its implementation. This could include advice on, for example, competition law or data protection, which may play a direct role in how a project proceeds.

Jonathan says this is a benefit of working in-house – even if you are not directly involved in the team building technological advancements into the vehicle, through the advice you have provided you are playing a role in this innovation.

As a business we are always encouraging the in-house legal team not to be afraid of taking sensible, risk-based decisions.

Jonathan says this feeds into his leadership – he needs to lead by example by sometimes taking nuanced decisions, that encourage his team to do the same.

One area of innovation that Jonathan is acutely aware of at the moment is Artificial Intelligence, where the legal ground rules are not yet well established. He’s providing initial advice on this, as well as considering how his own team can be supported by AI in the form of legal tech.

On getting legal support when you need it

However strong an in-house legal team, the lawyers cannot do it all and sometimes external support is needed.

For this, Mercedes-Benz uses a panel of legal expertise – including lawyers at Blake Morgan – which it turns to for specialist advice and extra resource. Jonathan says these lawyers are important partners to the in-house team, with trusted relationships built over years.

As areas of the law evolve – including consumer law, financial law and digital law – the business needs extra support in navigating this and understanding the impact on them.

What we’re looking for in these external lawyers is what we’re looking for in our internal team – including someone who is prepared to get to know our business and offer pragmatic and commercial advice based on that.

Ultimately, despite all the change and transformation, the new challenges and global market complexities, what sits at the heart of a successful legal team is talented, passionate people, who are committed to offering expert, considered advice. Whether in-house or external, it is the contribution of these lawyers, and the bright next generation coming through, that will help businesses like Mercedes-Benz shape the future.

This interview is part of a series of conversations with in-house lawyers which Blake Morgan are documenting, as part of our business forum for in-house counsel.

Counsel+ is an in-house lawyer forum, aimed at general counsel and the in-house community. Find out more about it here and sign up to our mailing list to ensure you do not miss out on exclusive invitations to roundtable events, thought-provoking webinars and the latest developments.

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