Flood defences

Last month the Guardian published a tongue-in-cheek list of top tips to help people back to work after the Christmas break.  At number 2 on the list was the tip to “forget any work you didn’t finish last year, it probably doesn’t need doing anyway”.

Obviously this was not a tip to be taken literally.  But, perhaps there is a grain of truth in it.  The start of the year (well, February is nearer the start than the end) is a perfect opportunity for all teams to consider what it is they want to achieve this year, free of the end-of-year baggage of last year.  As I often think in December, Christmas is a little known anagram of “arbitrary deadline” (go on, try it).

For leaders of external customer-facing teams, such as business development or sales directors, their new year objectives are to some extent self-explanatory.  Increase sales by x per cent, win y new clients from a new sector, up-sell by z per cent, reduce cancellation rates by x per cent.  I’m sure that this grossly over-simplifies the complexities of running a sales function, but hopefully you see my point.

This is not necessarily such a self-explanatory exercise for the managers of service functions within corporations such as lawyers or accountants.  Whilst metrics are important, the success of an in-house legal function cannot necessarily be accurately measured by an increase in the number of contracts that are completed in a year.  We could easily increase the output of our own legal team if we decided to concede on every negotiation point – whilst some or our internal clients might think that mean we are doing a better job because turn-round times would be quicker, self-evidently that would not be true.

But whilst it is not a self-explanatory exercise, that does not mean in-house legal functions should not address the question: what can we do this year to improve on what we did last year and how do we do it?  For me, I see much of the next 12 months as being about process.  I want our department to spend a little more time, perhaps selfishly, for the greater good of our own team, rather than for the direct benefit of our clients – if we achieve our aims, then indirect benefits for the business will naturally flow.  So on my own 2013 bucket list, you will find concepts such as improving our existing approach to issues such as document management, sign-off procedures, involvement in our procurement process and so on.  I suppose you could think of it as Mini-Corporate Governance Improvement (catchy tag line).  On the face of it, a little dull, but 12 months focus on achieving these goals should go some way to making 2014 and beyond easier for our team in terms of process than in 2011 and 2012.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of challenging work coming down the pike as well.  As a news organisation, we are likely to end up with a new regulatory post-Leveson landscape to implement and work within.  Our business is growing fast globally.  Data protection change is on the horizon.  The continuing transition to digital throws up new legal challenges.  And so on and so on.

But there is always a risk for lawyers (and all service providers) that the fascinating work coming down the pike can result in a flood that means the legal team stops focussing on the bigger objectives in order to plug the business-as-usual dam.  This year we may need to allow the dam to break, just a tiny tiny bit, in order to ensure that we make the time to put in place our longer term flood defences.

Prevention, as they say, is better than cure.  So, what are you doing?

Things I know now which I wish I’d known then

Alex Aldridge was kind enough to ask me to originally write this piece for Legal Cheek as part of the “If I knew then” series – hopefully some helpful(ish!) pointers and tips for law students/trainees.

Things I know now which I wish I’d known then:

1. That those law students with the loudest voices do not have an exclusive right to be lawyers.  My University certainly had more than its fair share of students whose confidence was not always proportionate to their ability.  I wish I’d known that those with louder voices than mine in tutorials did not necessarily know more than me and certainly had no more chance than I did of being a lawyer.

2. That playing the networking game is important even when a student.  I can remember a morning spent in a hotel meeting room.  About 30 of us invited there by a City law firm following a drinks event the night before.  I naively had no real idea what for.  When I arrived I found a clearly quite forced and artificial debate in full flow between some students and representatives of the law firm.  I froze, not really seeing how I could nor having any desire to contribute to such a manufactured conversation.  As a result, many of my peers got summer placements with said firm, I did not.  I wish I’d known that superficial networking is occasionally necessary to get noticed, however unfair that may seem.

3. That I would eventually get a training contract.  Like most law students, I found it difficult to get one.  Multiple applications, multiple interviews, multiple rejections, deferring a year etcetera.  It is difficult not to become disheartened and think that you will never find the holy grail.  Some degree of failure is almost inevitable except for the very top applicants.  You have to keep plugging away – that won’t guarantee success, but nor will giving up.  Whilst it is important to tailor applications and interviews for the individual firm, there is no getting away from the fact that getting a training contract is to some degree a numbers game.  I wish I’d known that a lot of rejected applications didn’t necessarily mean I would not eventually secure a training contract.

4. That joining a law firm does not mean you need to want to be a partner.  Let’s be honest, how many students interviewing for training contracts even know what it is to “be a partner”.  Yet it’s kind of assumed when you join a firm that you must aspire to be one.  And so you kind of have to pretend, even make yourself believe, as a trainee or a junior lawyer, that you too want to join this hallowed club.  Here’s a tip – get a job in a law firm, enjoy it for what it is, get some cracking experience and don’t even think about whether or not you want to be a partner until you are four, five years or so into it.  If you then do, great, go for it.  If you don’t, that’s equally fine.  I wish I’d known that it was okay not to think too hard about what a long-term career in a law firm would look like.

5.  That I’d realised early in my career that corporate law is important, fundamental to the way the corporate world works and can even be fun.  As a junior lawyer I shied away from corporate work.  I avoided it until my last training seat, was grateful to find myself working for a partner as keen to watch World Cup ’98 as I was and generally loathed my IP/IT support role on acquisitions when I qualified.  I didn’t take the trouble to think about why Corporate was the biggest department in the firm nor how all the different parts of an acquisition fitted together.  It was only years later when I was in-house that I began to understand what all the fuss was about.  I now find the conclusion of a corporate project one of the most satisfying things to do as a lawyer.  I wish I’d known that corporate law shouldn’t be viewed in isolation and as completely distinct from IP, IT or media and that I’d known my way around a share purchase agreement before I moved in-house.

6. And this being for Legal Cheek, let’s end with a slightly tongue-in-cheek “things I know now”.  That lawyers don’t tend to run companies, accountants and MBA grads do.  Just think about that when submitting your application for a training contract.  Really!

If I’d known these things then I might have stressed just a tiny bit less about my law studies, a lot less about obtaining a training contract and a lot lot less when a trainee.  Oh yes, and it might have taken me less time to know my escrow from my earn-out (look it up!).