Thick and fast

I can’t recall a run-in like it.  The magnitude of the games, the intensity of the atmosphere, so vivid you can almost taste it.  The roar of the crowd, the togetherness of the songs, the anticipation.  The optimism filling our lungs and bodies like oxygen.  And the hope…well, we all know it’s the hope that kills you.

If we leave aside Hereford in 1997 – and as a further aside, if we can have regrets in life then one of mine is not being there and instead sitting on my own in a flat listening to the radio whilst my wife and in-laws went out for the afternoon without too many cares in the world whilst I had a pretty large one very front of mind (long sentence but I needed to get it off my chest).  No game we the mighty Albion ever play can ever, will ever be bigger than that one.

But leaving that one aside, our trip to the smoggy Riverside last Saturday was, I’d argue, the next biggest game in Albion’s history.  I told my kids, sitting in the stand before the game, that whatever happened they should try to enjoy the day because days like these don’t come along very often in an Albion supporting history.  Ninety eight minutes later I didn’t really live up to that sentiment myself as it was a draw that felt worse than a loss, when the whistle went it cut deep.  I never again want to go away and watch another team promoted at our expense.

And now (I write this pre-match), a fairly unappealing away game at Sheffield Wednesday is, arguably, the next most important game in our history (those of an ‘83 supporting vintage may want to argue with this and I won’t squabble if so).  Which will again be superseded in importance by Monday’s only just slightly more appealing home game.  And if all goes well, then, well, fasten your seatbelts for a bit of que sera time (and I make no apology for daring to utter these words in advance as we already sang them defiantly at Boro so if it really is a jinx then we’ve jinxed it already, sorry folks).

I know in my heart (and mind) that any sane Brighton fan would have snapped off anyone’s hand who offered us a play-off place at the beginning of the season.  The team and the manager have exceeded what we (and I suspect they) felt possible in August.  We’re only potentially four and a half hours from the P(romised) L(and).

But why has this week felt, felt, well, so, mwah or mweh, for want of better words to try and convey an ever so deflated sentiment.  It all feels, illogically, like something after the Lord Mayor’s show.  The buzz of Burnley at home, Forest away and in particular Charlton away gave us a surge of hopeful adrenalin, like a big shot in the arm of pure football hope.  Which felt like it was medically drained out of us as we drove south down the A19 last Saturday.  Even the milkshake we had on the way home in Thirsk was rubbish.

There’ll be those who say I’m unrealistic, that I’m not behind the team.  But I’m not and I am.  During the course of this week, I’ve turned several times to the thought that this is the week where Chris Hughton really does earn his money.  He’s had to lift what is after all a young bunch of lads, jump-start them out of their own Boro blues, smooth over the disappointment of losing Stephens (and the appeal), get a game plan together, travel north again and get the focus back.  Not an easy job.  If he manages it then they should bottle the Hughton magic and sell it in the club shop.

I hope to ease out of my flatness or mwahness in the 30 minutes before the game as I’m still not quite there a couple of hours before kick off.  Browsing North Stand Chat this week has helped (but also hindered depending on which thread).  Listening to the Albion Roar’s special has helped (Al) but also hindered (Ady).  Writing this and trying to get my thoughts in order has been cathartic if nothing else.

So here we go then.  Two hours until the biggest game since Middlesbrough which was the biggest since Hereford.  Then on Monday the biggest game since Friday (and confusingly it’s against Wednesday).  Then we get either three weeks of pre-Wembley worry or however many weeks of crushing disappointment.  As a reminder, this is something we all choose to do, no-one forces us.  And we even pay to do it.  No wonder some people think that football fans are stupid.

UTA.  Let’s get the job done and crack on with the three weeks of worry.

The Lawyer GC Strategy Summit: the view from Sintra

Your GC Summit correspondent files this copy from the Penha Longa hotel in Sintra, near Lisbon.  He has stayed in shabbier places to be fair.  Tough moments of this ‘tour de law’ have included drinks overlooking the golf course and dinner in a fort with a sea view.  No stone has been unturned in ensuring that all details of the Summit are shared with the reader.

As the sun comes up on day two of the Summit over the manicured lawns I can see from my balcony (okay, we get the picture, Ed) I’ll try to summarise the legal medley of ideas, issues and topics discussed yesterday.

And where better to start than a view from the boardroom about the job that its lawyers do, or at least should do.  There are two types of GC apparently.  The GC who is very comfortable in the legal world.  And the GC who likes to get involved in a wide range of activities.  No surprise to hear that the board prefers that latter beast, the strategic thinker.  Not really a top tip for seasoned GCs, but worth thinking about for more junior in-house lawyers just beginning to tread the boards in commerce and industry.

Perhaps of more surprise (or disappointment!) is the fact that the board “doesn’t think about lawyers in its day to day deliberations”.  What?!  We lawyers are not front and foremost of our CEO’s thoughts each day?  Before you destroy your practising certificate in a fit of pique, there is an exception to this, the board will need to bring its lawyers into play when there is “a good reason to do so” such as a big transaction or litigation.  In summary, the board leaves the GC to keep the trainset running but will shout when help is needed.  Phew, all is not lost.

A quick side note was the view that the GC needs to sit physically close to the rest of the board in order to ensure the are involved day-to-day “in the flow”.  An old-fashioned notion perhaps in this technological age, but the point was well made (if put differently) that out of sight can be out of mind.

In the context of the GC’s relationship with the board (and interestingly, no debate this time of should the GC be on or sit with the board, I think we’ve moved on from that theme which would have been prevalent a few years ago), ethics is a recurring issue.  The GCs here are firmly of the view that with their ‘ethical guardian’ hat on it is right to challenge the board in difficult questions, not by advising “what must we do (legally)” but instead challenging “what should we do (ethically)”?

A couple of more specific ethics related issues included, how do you due diligence ethical concerns in an acquisition?  Answer: you can’t, but you can do a “culture check”.  And, a note to be careful in joint ventures in certain overseas countries where the ethical landscape may not be what we are used to, that you are not “outsourcing your ethical obligations”.  Nicely put.

From the boardroom we moved to the legal innovation lab as both legal service providers and in-house teams put their Innovation hats on.  The mood music from the in-housers at one session I attended was mixed.  Whilst GCs recognised that they have “no option” but to innovate and consider how to do things better, it was generally felt that “inertia” existed preventing them from going as fast as they’d like to.

The reasons for this?  A lack of support from over-stretched colleagues in IT; a lack of technology budget within legal teams; capex constraints within corporates generally; and a lack of time.

These frustrations almost gave way to worry as GCs acknowledged that the legal team needed to innovate, on the basis that “all aspects of a business need to focus on continuous improvement and legal should be part of that”, otherwise it will cease to be relevant and lag behind the corporate culture.  In turn, this will not help GCs keep their CEOs focused “on value rather than cost”.

It’s clear that law firms and other legal service providers have a role to play here.  The now familiar menu of process improvement, automation technology, flexible resourcing models and data analytics are no longer pie in the sky concepts, but important parts of day-to-day service provision now deployed by a range of suppliers.  Although I’m generally one whose bias lies with the in-house community, I did feel there was a little too much skeptism in the room when it was suggested that law firms are keen to help their clients with technology solutions because it binds them into the firm!

Innovation summary – some good work has been done, but there is much more to do.  A slightly unsatisfactory position perhaps, but it’s the reality.

We moved seamlessly from discussions around tech to compliance.  Compliance is a funny topic at these conferences – it’s a bit like eating your greens – everyone knows it has to be done, that it’s good for you, but nobody likes doing it.  Yet this turned out to be one of my favourite sessions of the day as the panel debated how best to instal a compliance culture in any business.

The big compliance challenge was well put – how do you devote limited resources to what looks like an endless risk of tasks?  A few succinct points conveyed powerfully what the foundations of a good compliance programme look like.

First, anything that is worth worrying about in a business will not be recorded in an email, you’ve got to get out of your office to manage compliance effectively.  Second, it’s important to understand human behaviour and the levers you can pull to influence it.  Third, yes do start to look at Big Data which can paint a picture of where problems in a business are likely to crop up, but it’s humans not computers which behave badly and getting in front of people is critical, “people will tell you more to your face than they’ll put down in a spreadsheet”.

My favourite point of all during the compliance debate, and perhaps the best point made all day, was by a GC who challenged the idea we’ve all heard before in the context of in-house legal teams “becoming more commercial”, which is the much floated challenge that the legal department should be turned from a cost centre into a profit centre.  The GC poured scorn on this notion – “have we lost our minds?” – on the basis that there is no good reason to incentivise the legal team to take the wrong or unncessarily risky decisions.  Not the fashionable view perhaps, but I thought a strong point well made.

Finally, we looked at strategies for minimising costs and saving time, perhaps best summarised as how to get the best bang for your in-house buck.  We were (rightly in my view) taken back to first base in this debate with the advice from one GC that before one even starts thinking about how best to do this you need to think “what is the purpose of this legal function”. Without doing this, it’s hard to galvanise your own thought processes.

Think about what different divisions within your business need.  Some will need specific expertise.  Others greater firepower.  Break down tasks across your team, see who does what and where time is spent.  Is it being spent in the right places?  Don’t underestimate how long certain tasks, like the creation of playbooks to improve efficiency, will take.  Above all, take a pro-active approach to budget management.

One point made here which I’ve not heard too often before was a general consensus to involve procurement in the budgeting process and even negotiations with legal service providers.  This is a very different stance I’ve heard in the past, where procurement were oft regarded as the enemy and to be kept away at all costs.  That view has now changed as GCs recognise the value procurement professionals can bring to the party.  The general consensus was the in-housers should choose the providers they want to work with, then bring in the procurement big guns to help you agree pricing.

I finished the day by attending a session on crisis management.  We heard a couple of anecdotal tales which were enough to make you think “I’m glad I wasn’t involved in that” and received a reminder that crisis management is not only for Communications Directors, all senior management need to be at the table with a view, not least the GC.  As well as yet another reminder on ethics, that “doing the right thing is usually the right thing to do”.

It’s hard to draw a pithy conclusion from debates across such a wide-range of subject areas. Suffice to say, I think today’s GCs have a much clearer vision in their heads than a few years ago of where and how they are driving the in-house and wider business agenda.  There is less talk about achieving undefined “added value” by “being at the table” and instead stringent focus on where in the business the GC should be spending their time and how to go about doing that most effectively.

As someone best summarised the first day of the Summit, “The GCs who really do add value are those who ask the difficult questions and poke their noses into difficult problems.”  Amen to that.

Right, blog post written, the sun is up.  The hardship of a cooked hotel breakfast awaits before we plunge into another morning of debate.  Signing off from Lisbon, final copy will be filed next week from the London bureau.

The Lawyer GC Strategy Summit: musings from the airport

Your correspondent files this copy from the glamorous surroundings of London Luton Airport’s departures terminal.  Cappucino in hand, laptop open, tapping the keyboard and looking forward to some sunshine on arrival in Portugal for The Lawyer’s GC Strategy Summit 2016.  Sometimes, working life is quite a hardship but we all have to take one for the team occasionally.

I’ll be blogging two or three times from the Summit (the only people who can get away with going to an event called a Summit are Heads of State, United Nations delegates and General Counsels – fact) and those kind folks at The Lawyer are also letting LOD loose on their Summit Twitter wall so much fun awaits.  I’ll be trying to share some of the key themes on the minds of GCs and others here, which hopefully go beyond the opportunity for a cocktail by the pool (although hopefully there will be plenty of time for that too).

Over the last couple of days I’ve been in touch with a few of the GCs attending the Summit and asked them what is on their minds, what they hope to get out of the next few days, which they kindly agreed I can share.

It will be no surprise to any conference veterans that the ‘R word’ continues to feature highly on the GC agenda.  That old chestnut about how to effectively manage risk.  More specifically, the GCs I talked to are thinking about how to minimise not only contractual but also reputational risk, finding out new perspectives on how to approach it and implementing good corporate governance practices to manage risk within a framework.

Important stuff.  I was particularly interested in the perspective on risk one GC had, which is to manage risk “better than our competitors to enhance sales”.  Talk about turning a potential negative into a positive.  The concept of ‘legal’ as the business prevention department has long been consigned to the dustbin.

Others are coming along with a bit of an Innovation hat on.  As one GC put down the challenge, “if there’s so much talk going on when it comes to disruptive innovation, then what is holding the GC back in actually changing the game in the middle of play?”  Tough words designed to shake things up a little bit.

That’s an interesting perspective, because often the in-house community look to their suppliers to provide the innovation toolkit from which they can browse, but this kind of talk puts the ball firmly into the GC’s court.  Many will welcome that, others may not.

Providers of legal services will not be exempt from challenges like this either once we get to Lisbon.  One GC wants to find out “which providers are genuinely doing something different and innovative versus which are spinning the same old yarn.”  Gulp.  Some people are going to get found out on this one.  Luckily, we at LOD will have our new online marketplace for lawyers to talk about…..or #swiperightforlaw as some wag on Twitter put it.

Those GCs who are doing a bit of horizon scanning see a few sticky regulatory issues coming down the pike (apologies for the horrible mixture of metaphors!).  Planning for potential Brexit, data security and of course the juggernaut now solemnly referred to as the GDPR (the grimreaper approacheth) are issues which no pro-active GC can be ignoring.

In fact we can expect to hear a lot about data generally as it’s also on the mind of GCs in other ways.  Two or three GCs raised the question about how to make clever use of data in order to improve the service they can provide to their clients.  Big Data is firmly on the in-house agenda, even if no-one appears to have cracked it yet.

If these are the big themes that will be dominating discussion inevitably there are many issues specific to individuals or their businesses where delegates hope to pick up top tips from their peers.  A few of these include effective talent management, innovative technology, building relationships with new stakeholders and reviewing the use of legal service providers.

But if one theme above all dominated the responses I received from the GCs we know at LOD, it was that desire for a bit of old fashioned face-to-face networking with peers.  A wish to “share experiences”, “swap tips”, “exchange views” and “make contacts”.  It’s easy to forget, that the GC hot seat can be a lonely place.  The CEO expects you to always make decisions as if you’re armed with perfect information, as does the most junior member of your team.  The GC role is not one where you can often openly express doubt or uncertainty to your colleagues.  Nor do colleagues outside of the legal team often have the required expertise or context to help GCs see how they might improve the operation of their function.

It is this network which the Summit will bring together, enabling GCs to generously share their experiences, leaving everyone with something extra to take back to base on Friday. Perhaps it is this more than anything else which will help GCs reach what one called “the long predicted break-through moment”.

Right, the cappuccino has gone cold, the gate number is flashing and it’s shortly time for wheels up.  See you on the other side where your correspondent will be blogging from the more salubrious location of the Penha Longa Hotel in Sintra.  Hopefully there’ll be a sun lounger with a table to rest the laptop on.

See you on the other side.