The view from Syon Park

One of our favourite blog posts that we’ve recently read at Lawyers On Demand (LOD) is a piece about tribes by the irrepressible Seth Godin.  It resonates with us on many levels, not least with our view for our own business that those who choose to embrace the world of freelance work, in whatever sector, are in some way finding a new group of peers to learn from and contribute to.  The energy generated by a group with a common interest can help that group become far more than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps this need or desire to be part of a tribe or group explains the success of events such as Legal Week’s Corporate Counsel Forum (CCFE), which took place last week at the rather pleasant London Syon Park Hotel.  This was my first official outing as LOD’s new Practice Development Director and it was interesting to listen to the conference discussions from a new perspective.  There is some irony that 60 or so senior in-house counsel choose to spend two days travelling to and then located in a London hotel in order to attend a conference whose theme is “going global – exploring the power of increased connectivity”.  Sadly, London’s transport infrastructure did not contribute to the feeling of connectivity amongst first morning delegates as we struggled in via traffic jams on the M25 and train failures on the Richmond line.  Couldn’t we all have just connected using Skype (other VOIP providers are available)?

Well, the delegates could have connected in a technological sense, but not in the Seth sense.  Because events like CCFE really do bring the best out of lawyers in terms of a willingness to share and engage with peers.  To a degree, the conference agenda is irrelevant, the real value is in the peer-to-peer conversations which take place around the margins of conference, the relationships made or renewed and the advice freely shared.  This kind of conference content is still very much king.

In-house lawyers are not averse to talking about the role of lawyers on boards and so it seemed fitting that a real life CEO should kick off proceedings.  Martin Glenn, CEO of United Biscuits, certainly got the attention of the room when he linked legal advice to corporate value: “if you are too cautious you will destroy value and if you are too gung ho you will destroy value”, he warned the room.  Martin went on to explain what he looks for from his in-house lawyers: not to make him comfortable; to give him the advice he needs, not the advice he wants; to get off the fence and provide solutions, not problems; and if all that was not hard enough, Martin also requires his GCs to be fortune tellers, “anticipating what general management will need to be thinking about in a couple of years time”.  Well, no-one ever said that being a GC was an easy gig.

Martin concluded with a remark that resonated with all those attending conference – that lawyers need to join what he called the productivity journey.  That all people in business are trying to find a better, quicker and higher quality way of doing things.  The clarion call was sounded when he provided the sober warning that the legal profession is not immune from needing to do the same.

This lack of immunity from change was the unspoken centre-piece of a panel discussion held by three influential GCs – David Eveleigh of BT, Chris Vaughan of Balfour Beatty and Richard Tapp of Carillion.  If anyone needed reminding, these three left the audience in no doubt at one of the key challenges facing in-house lawyers generally, that very real need to do “more for less”.  But it was evident from the discussion that this need is more than a catchphrase, it is a very real challenge being set for GCs by their CEOs and which the best GCs are tackling pro-actively before it is tackled for them.  Prevention, they say, is better than cure.

What was apparent from listening to this session is that the question facing GCs is no longer so simple as “shall I do it in-house or send it to my panel firm?”.  GCs are structuring their legal departments as centres of in-house excellence with a desire to keep the most strategic work in-house, with a variety of plug-in solutions for the in-house team to use on an “as needed” basis.  To an extent, the detail of the different solutions used by these GCs is irrelevant.  The real takeaway is that in-house lawyers are increasingly thinking strategically and laterally about how best to outsource or even in-source the work that does not, for whatever reason, belong with the core in-house team.  External service providers would do well to take note – the days of a one size fits all outsourced solution are long gone.  Those who are flexible and willing to plug and play are of far more value to clients than those providers who purport to be able to do everything equally effectively and efficiently.

Away from the main stage a variety of roundtable sessions offered delegates a range of choices to debate the issues du jour in smaller groups.  In a session on anti-trust risk, an interesting takeaway was not so much the delegates’ views on the details of the law, but the role in-house lawyers saw for themselves as influencers of the cultures within their organisations which in turn could shape a culture of compliance throughout a company.  The role of the GC as a guardian of ethics isn’t a new debate, but there was a general consensus that the GC’s success (or not) in promoting a compliance program is more about winning hearts and minds rather than explaining the detail of the Bribery Act.  If GCs weren’t busy enough, that’s another item to add to the action list: showing their clients the love rather than the law, if you like.

It was also interesting if not altogether surprising to see the in-house audience tackle subjects with pragmatism very much front of mind.  In particular, a session on the supposed legal minefields surrounding use of social media very quickly turned into a roundtable discussion about risk management, a theme continued in a separate session where in-house lawyers were urged to forge close working relationships with their peers in the in-house PR team.  It’s exchanges like these where the value in these get togethers really resides.  It might seem obvious that the GC needs to work closely with the PR Director, but sometimes it helps to just have someone credible say that out loud, to let everyone know that being a good in-house lawyer is not just about turning around the contracts.

As someone who has attended a good number of these conferences albeit with my old GC hat on, it is apparent to me that the in-house legal community has upped its game significantly over the last decade.  Ten years ago, a panel session on “developing your legal team” might have revealed some game-changing information.  In 2013, it acts as a useful checklist reminder of best practice.  It has long been apparent that most GCs are experts in how to continually fine tune the engine of their legal department.  In-house teams are now operating at a quality level at least as high as the panel firms they used to rely on – and they don’t just develop excellent lawyers, they develop decent managers and business people too.

The challenge for GCs is how they move their teams on to achieve even more, to move them on to an even higher platform than the one they have climbed onto over the last ten years.  And the challenge for conference organisers, is how to trigger the peer debates that will allow the next generation of GCs to do just that.

Whilst technology is a game-changer and does indeed provide increased connectivity, there’s still nothing quite as useful as exchanging ideas in person over a cup of coffee.  The GC tribe still has much to offer its members.