Will the last in-house lawyer turn the lights out please? by Ian White.
Oh not another depressing missive you ask? Well not really just some practical advice. Part of the advice I often give to business lawyers is to read about business. One of my favourite business writers is Charles Handy. I like Handy because he trained as a classicist but had a career in business which, while it is very far removed from classics, also has similarities and Handy often uses stories from classics to illustrate his points. It kind of makes business interesting. It also reminds me of my own background (I am not claiming to be in the same league as Handy you understand) as I decided late in my time at school to become a lawyer. Before this I was going to be an actor yah know! Anyway, I was lucky enough to listen to a young lawyer – John Denniss (now HHJ Denniss) – who advised me if I wanted to be a lawyer not to read law but to study something interesting (apologies in advance to the many, many law graduates whom I have just offended and who are on the whole interesting souls). Sitting on a beach in Ibiza sipping beer not yet being available as a degree subject, I studied history instead. It hopefully broadened my mind. It has made me think and reflect.
Anyway you get the point.
Back to Handy. His excellent book is The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society. What is the Second Curve I hear you ask? Basically, it is the principle that you should change before you hit a peak as it is much harder to do so once you are on a downward spiral. Handy is a prime example – he has been an executive, academic, consultant and author always changing at the right time or just before. The book contains some scary facts for all of us: for example, the prediction that half of all the jobs today will cease to exist in just 15 years; by 2035 47% of all roles will be performed by computer. Oh that¹s just another wild prediction you say. Well not really. It is happening now. To illustrate the point: the big corporations that employed thousands of people are changing – for example, while a big company like Kodak employed 145,000 people an even ‘bigger’ organisation like Facebook employs just 6,000. The definition of what means ‘big’ is changing – rapidly. Big no longer means lots of employees.
Lawyers – external and in-house – are not immune from this. Quite the reverse – as Handy rightly points out much basic legal work will be performed by computers in the future without the need for you and me. The legal world will be radically different in five years and possibly unrecognisable in fifteen. Yet we still train more and more lawyers. That wouldn¹t be so bad in itself but we are training them very much in our own image – to have the type of career we have had – the only one we have known. But legal careers in the future will be very different. We must create a new future for ourselves – we have to imagine what the new world will be like and create a place for ourselves in that new world. Those who survive are those who best adapt to change. We all need to be able to do this if we are to survive in this new world. However I wonder if adapting alone may now be enough – maybe we have to imagine and create that new life at the right time or just shortly before as Handy would tell us.
So what¹s your point? Very simply don¹t be afraid to imagine what the future will be like or to adapt. Try new things – whether that means working abroad or going on secondment to a department other than the legal one. Maybe you will return to Legal, may be you won’t. But you¹ll be more easily able to adapt to change and to imagine or create your future. Timing is of course everything and knowing when the second curve has arrived is a challenge. However, keep an open mind – both in business and in life – and maybe you will reach it. Sometimes at least!
Which reminds me I must imagine my future – maybe a sunny beach in Ibiza with a cool beer..
What the GC wants from external lawyers
A group of CLOs has shared for the last three years thoughts on what the in-house team wants from external lawyers. This is my brief summary on these perspectives:
- Understand my business. If you are to be any use to me you must understand my business. And that does not mean, if I manufacture widgets, that you understand the process of widget making (though that might be useful if you decide upon a change of career!). I want you to understand the culture, know the people – those to trust, those to avoid (hopefully not the CLO!), the risk appetite, the internal workings, and the external market. I am viewing you as an extension of the internal legal team and that has to be seamless as possible and so you must know my business -not as well as me perhaps but well enough to be a trusted adviser.
- Like my business. If I make paperclips it may not be a sexy operation but I probably don¹t get out that much as CLO so it may be my life (I am writing this point as a piece of fiction you understand!). I have to be enthusiastic about the business to my peers at work even if at times that is difficult so you need to share my enthusiasm.
- Remember I’m human. Well most of the time. The CLO role is stressful and lonely at times. I have few people to talk to and fewer friends. So if you are the most brilliant lawyer in the world but arrogant and aggressive it is not going to make for the best of relationships. I like to work with people I..like. A little bit of charm helps; a kind word or two when I have just been into see the CEO who is like a bear with a sore head (and that is on a good day!). If you are the type of person I can go out for a beer with then you have passed my compatibility test even if you don¹t drink alcohol (though I reserve the right to revisit that one).
- Listen – really listen. Few lawyers do. As Peter Drucker (see below) once said about managers: “The good manager listens first, speaks last.” Well it was something along those lines. It applies equally to directors, lawyers, HR officers, accountants – particularly accountants. Seriously, try and really listen to what your client – the CLO – wants. It may not be what he or she says. That’s the challenge.
- Deliver. Do what you say you will when you say will. Or let me know well in advance if you cannot and have a good reason. I once reported to a US GC who was both a great lawyer and business person. Unlike many of the people I have reported to who have made the Stasi appear laissez faire he just said “Ian I ask just one thing: no surprises!” It is as good a mantra as any. You only get one chance on this.
- Be transparent. The matter speaks for itself. Or as lawyers pretending they are Latin scholars would say res ipsa loquitur.
- Find yourself a mentor. Who do you admire and respect? How did they get to where they are? Find out. Ask them if they will be a sounding board for you – there is nothing like speaking to someone who has faced the same situation before. And don’t just stick to lawyers – some of my best mentors have actually been normal people!
- Don’t get it wrong and if you do own up. Actually I think this is perhaps too lofty an ambition – the best lawyers get it wrong from time to time. They are good lawyers because they own up to it. So if it does happen be open, transparent and act ethically. And these are qualities about which I could write pages but won’t because it is late.
- Remember it¹s all about relationships. In engaging you as my external lawyer, I am looking for a long term relationship – you get to know my business (and me) and I get to know you and your firm. Like all relationships there are good and bad times – the key is to have more of the former than the latter! But every time you advise me, have this at the back of your mind. And remember that the more senior you get, the more important your people skills become and less apparent your technical ones should be – the same is true of the Chief Legal Officer (or so my CEO tells me!)
- Shadow the CLO. One way of finding about the challenges (and joys of course!) which I face is to come and work with me for a couple of days. You won’t get paid (and don¹t bill me!) but you will appreciate my work environment. You might even decide to become a CLO yourself (don’t worry I will talk you out of it!)
- Read about business. Read as much about business as you can and frankly anything is better than reading law books! You’re in business be interested in business! If I had to recommend anyone to read on business then there are two people: Peter Drucker – an Austrian who became an Englishman and ended his life as an American – someone who began his life as a journalist, became a banker and finally a business academic. His vision was great; his insight vast. Secondly Charles Handy who sees business as being far more than simply profit – it has to lead to a better society. If corporate governance followed Handy rather than numerous codes, corporate scandals would be a thing of the past. Anyway that’s enough of my soapbox speech! A recent book well worth reading is Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows by Richard Hytner which is an excellent outline of working with leaders.
- Finally give something back! Even if you don¹t get to be Senior Partner you’ll probably do pretty well compared with most of the population. So remember those not so fortunate by helping those people too (and I don¹t mean unemployed lawyers although I can give you some names if you want to help!). Become a trustee of a charity – your business skills may be of real help to a small organisation that is doing something great in the community but has no money. Or be a volunteer or support for an organisation. The list of what you can do is endless.