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.

 

Five years to save the world

He’s at it again.  For a guy that has made a living in the legal profession, he does like predicting the end of days (or more accurately the end of lawyers).

This time Professor Richard Susskind (for it is he), speaking at the Law Society’s law management annual conference (catchy title) has warned us that:

You have five years to reinvent the legal profession.

Gulp.

That’s 2021 then until the game’s up and we’ll need to pack up, put our drafting pens down and leave UberGoogZon to dispense legal advice at the blink of a virtual reality headset.

You’d think lawyers would be grateful for the warning really, after all it does leave time to prepare, retrain and qualify as an accountant or something.  But judging by the comments section in the Law Society Gazette from the Gazette Commentariat, such gratitude is lacking, in fact Richard doesn’t receive much thanks at all.

This bloke is like some prehistoric creature, emerging from the primeval swamp every few years with a bellowing message of doom for the profession.

You can grow up, or you can become a legal futurologist.  You cannot do both.

Management consultants only have 5 years to think of new ways to grab headlines in legal journals in order to drum up business.

Utter tosh.

Etcetera etcetera.  Other commenters take exception to Susskind commenting on the profession on the basis he is not “on the Roll” and has “never practised” and is therefore not qualified to comment.

Oh dear.  Oh dearie dearie me.

Let’s take a proper look at what he said shall we?  I mean, I don’t want facts to get in the way of a good story, but I guess as lawyers we should do a little bit of analysis…

Beneath the headline is a story that this is a time of fresh opportunity for those in and entering the law.

The 2020s will be a decade of redeployment not unemployment [as] more and more legal services will be enabled by the support of new technology.

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  And is broadly consistent with this excellent recent piece by Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times about how technology is “Breaking the Law” (*Susskind warning kaxon* he pops up in this piece too).  Skapinker notes that “Many lawyers sneer at the idea that their work could ever be done by a website or app” (see above comments for proof of that).

Skapinker goes on to tell the well known story of eye watering law firm hourly rates, even more eye watering partner profits, cost restraints faced by the buyers of legal services and how that resulted in the creation of various so-called ‘new law’ players who are doing things differently to the trad players.  Some are even, would you believe it, talking about using tech to deliver those services.  Madness!

So is that it then?  Big Law Bad, New Law Good, New Law Tech Better?

Well, if I were a stock market player, then I’d go short on the Gazette’s Commentariat and long on Susskind (with an option to put early).  But what about the here and now?  What do we do whilst we’re preparing for the tech revolution (because it ‘aint here yet in law, certainly no-one has shown me the silver bullet)?

Before answering that, let me share some research we carried out at LOD with some real life lawyers.  These aren’t our views, it’s what a mix of our clients and lawyers told us.  We asked 70 lawyers which qualities they rated most highly to be an in-house leader and published the results in a pretty infographic thingy.

Interestingly, the skill-set of ‘technologist’ featured pretty low on the list of skills that these in-housers felt they needed to prioritise.  They are not necessarily about to imminently skill-up in the way that Susskind recommends.  Okay, it’s a limited data set and our poll methodology might not stand up to Mori levels of scrutiny, but it paints an interesting picture (or infographic). Perhaps those Legal Technologists are still in law school.

But before the Gazette Commentariat celebrates victory for the status quo, our research did show that lawyers value skills such as project management reasonably highly and the the need to be innovators higher still.

Which begs the question, is it possible to innovate and project manage without high end technology that arguably doesn’t yet exist in the industry?  The answer is yes.  Only a fool would argue that the provision of legal advice, drafting of legal documents and negotiation of deals is a case study in efficiency optimisation (*waits for “Utter tosh” to appear in the comments section).  Both clients, lawyers and legal service providers want to improve this.

But you don’t need an IBM Watson plug-in to achieve that.  Many of us in the New Law space are regularly deploying a mixture of Project Managers, PM methodology, MI, Playbooks (does everything have to begin with P?) and Dashboards as what I think of as a ‘wrapper’ around our lawyers.  Our reasoning is that:

Lawyer + Wrapper > Lawyer Alone

New Law is no longer just about labour arbitrage.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s very much about that too as both corporates and law firms look to reduce their fixed cost base and ramp up when needed, we’re only just getting to a stage where this kind of resourcing is business-as-usual for many organisations.   But we at LOD and others in the New Law mixer get up to far more than that day-to-day when we’re helping those of our clients who want things done not only differently but more efficiently.

And for those Susskind doubters, it’s worth a retrospective read of this Legal Futures piece from 2011.  Perhaps that futurologist guy does know what he’s on about after all.  Right, best crack on, there’s only four years three hundred and sixty four and a half days to go.

 

It’s the 2016 predictions mashup special

‘Write a legal market 2016 predictions blog post’ they said.  ‘It’ll be interesting’ they cajoled.  ‘It’ll be hard work demonstrating genuine thought leadership’ I pondered.  ‘I’ll be found out.  And anyway, it’ll be easier to copy, I mean summarise, the predictions already out there on the Interweb from the great and the good.’

So I scoured far and wide (disclaimer: it may have been a single Google search) for the best (and worst) predictions of what the 2016 legal market will look like.

Where better to start than the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog which publishes a mere 41 (count ‘em) predictions for 2016.  And what have we here?

Well, a bit of new law (per-lease, can we find a new term for this next year?) breathlessness about what a “dynamic, fast changing environment” the legal sector is as we’re told that “the pace and complexity of the disruption in the legal marketplace is increasing”.  Okay, some truth in that, but it does sound oh so 2010.  Can’t we do better?

A dose of realism then.  “Big firm leaders” will continue to mismanage, by “undervaluing collegiality and cohesiveness”.  Realism?  Or scepticism?  The Big Law market will, whether we like it or not, continue to thrive.

For those more interested in the Chinese new year than the turning of the calendar year, we also read that 2016 will be the year of the client (insert animal of choice here).  “The day of the client is finally coming” (surely this statement is missing multiple exclamation marks!!!) and these “21st century clients will drive a revolution in the delivery of legal services”.  Despite the slight hyperbole, these commentators have a point.  Surely there’s never been a better time to be a buyer of legal services?

Well that’s the theory anyway.  Briefly leaving our friends from Lexis a second, Professor Stephen Mayson tells us wearily on his own blog that good client service is certainly not alive and well.  In fact it’s just about dead in the water.  Is it fair to summarise the state of an industry based on a single anecdote?  Perhaps not, but this is the blogosphere people, so anything goes!  And anyway, those of us who know Stephen will know that his anecdote will be backed-up by roomfuls of research so doubt at your peril.

2016 the year of the client?  We’ll have to see.

Back in LexisNexis land (that should be a *thing* with rides and swimming pools and hotels and stuff) we hear the negative (but no doubt sadly true) prediction that “law firms will not see significant increases in the number of women partners or women managing partners”.  Perhaps the word “see” should be replaced with the word “facilitate” – discuss.  Controversial one that, not for discussion around the Christmas dinner table for fear of upsetting the relatives.

Then we move into legal tech.  That’s to be added to the list of phrases we want to ban.  I fear what I’m about to read here.  Swathes of associate cuts as AI takes over the world.  I have visions of the scene from Alien when Kane’s stomach erupts, as AI bots explode from the bodies of hard working attorneys (I’ve used the ‘a’ word there for my large US readership) the world over.  Or maybe the mulled wine I had at (not for) lunch is having an impact.  Expectantly, I await the predictable self-interested tech predictions…

…but I’m disappointed.  Even over at the Disrupt Legal blog which has its own 7 legal tech predictions for 2016 we’re told “Robots will not take lawyers’ jobs” and “the billable hour will not go away”.  Yawn.  Even Ron Friedmann, who’s not adverse to a bit of legal tech love, warns that AI “will make a big media splash but have limited actual impact…the hype cycle will be brought down to earth”.  Surely gremlins in the machine here.

It does get better though as we’re told (*self-interested klaxon*) that “On-demand services will improve and expand”.  Consistent too with the American Lawyer’s prediction that “freelancers will squeeze out associates.  Firms will get hip about the freelance economy”.  Finishing with a statement that could even be SPONSORED BY LOD (it’s not, promise) “Why shell out all that money for benefits and office space when they can hire experienced alums of top firms on an hourly or per assignment basis?’  Amen to that.

The craziest assertion made over on Disrupt Legal is not even tech related.  It’s the prediction that “Biglaw will embrace work-life balance”.  That’s a joke worthy of any Christmas cracker.  And lest you think I’m being unfair to law firms, let’s not forget that client behaviour (deadlines, deals and – sorry, can’t think of a third ‘d’) drives (oh, there it is) supplier behaviour.  Yes, another one not to discuss after a glass or two, it’ll all get too explosive.

But the work-life balance issue raises its non-ugly head again on American Lawyer which predicts “firms will hold parent visiting days” (Big Law offices are no place for children, leave them at home!), “firms will make a big show about work/life balance” with talk of hiring “nutritionists, pilates instructors, gurus and healers”.  Healers?  What is going on state-side?!  And perhaps more realistically, we’re told that “non-partner tracks will explode…for part-timers, flex-timers, off-rampers, on-rampers, aspiring parents, new parents” and even “tired parents”.  I give this last prediction a big fat Facebook *Like*.

The more I read the more it seems that Big Law is getting better at getting the soft stuff right with a prediction that by the end of 2016 “the majority of the top 100 law firms will have introduced CV blind recruitment policies for new trainee solicitors”.  Good news for everyone.  Except Oxbridge and Ivy League graduates I guess, please form an orderly queue to provide tea and sympathy.

We’d best finish off our visit around LexisNexis land (it’s great here!) where three themes emerge.  The “Law Firm as a Service” will become commonplace.  Firms will focus on ensuring that “knowledge…one of their most strategically important assets” is exploited properly and there may even be early adopters pursuing the “information-as-a-legal-service model”.

I see the sense in that.  But with tech benefits comes tech risk.  And surely one of the most sobering predictions (from our own good friend, Jordan Furlong) is that in 2016 “we’ll finally have our first high-profile law firm cybersecurity catastrophe”.  Indeed, cyber risks will “continue to expand in both force” (insert your own Star Wars gag here) “and origin”.  Perhaps for this reason, we’re told that “client security audits will top 200 pages” (happy reading everyone!).

The final one to throw into the melting point is that we’ll see Tripadvisor for Lawyers with “significant advances in third party lawyer rating services”.  I’d personally like to see a Trip/Lawyeradvisor mash-up, where you can choose a restaurant based on the quality of the lawyers you’re likely to meet there.  A kind of Tinder for hungry lawyers.  Or something.  And yes, that idea is copyrighted, or whatever the term is.

My favourite prediction of them all, again over on the LN channel.  Sit down folks, it’s a stonker.

The Apple Watch will continue (sic) to gain traction as attorneys learn new and varied ways to integrate them into their practices.

Futurolgistic?  Or just plain cobblers?  You decide dear reader.

I leave the last words to Janet Stanton from Adam Smith Esq.  Janet makes the unexciting but surely accurate prediction:

2016 will look very much like 2015.

What no hyperbole?  What no exaggerated doom and gloom?  Boring?  Maybe.  Realistic?  I think so.  And after all, if the incremental change we are seeing across our profession continues at its current rate – and, who knows, maybe even a smidgen quicker – then we’re in for a good, perhaps even great (if not over-dramatic) year.

See you on the other side!

 

 

Seeking: M/F with a GSOH, stubborn streak, must love spreadsheets

Like a lot of GCs and purveyors of legal services, I’ve had arguably more than my fair share of attending in-house corporate counsel forums, conferences, roundtables and even grandly named summits.  It’s easy to get battle-weary of these when one hears the regular call to arms to ‘be more commercial’, ‘get closer to the business’ and the favourite moniker, ‘get a seat at the table’ (the one closest to the lunch buffet is my favourite, not sure if that’s what they mean though).

Which is why it was refreshing last week at The Lawyer’s ‘In-House Counsel as Business Partner’ event to hear the views of one CEO and one CAO (Chief Administrative Officer if you were wondering, which I don’t think is a case of job title inflation for the Head of Stationery) of what they want from GCs.

Step forward Nicola Shaw, CEO of HS1, and Tom Kilroy, CAO/Chief of Staff at Misys.

The advice from both was succinct, as perhaps you’d expect from people operating at the C-Suite.

The traits Nicola looks for in her GCs are: commerciality; stubbornness; a willingness to challenge; someone who’ll help raise the company profile; a pro-active tendency; can transition quickly across varied issues; who wants to help run the business; and, most controversially, a GC who’d be “fun” to work with.  Who knew…

Tom is the rare UK example of a GC turned CEO now turned CAO.  He’s passionate about the need for lawyers to get financially literate.  Tom was once kind enough to visit my old shop at the FT and talk to our team about that.

He’s got a new slide deck now though.

First up, a slide of Jesus (I considered a link to a picture, decided it superfluous), highlighting that 8 per cent of his disciples betrayed him.  The point of the slide?  The figure is meaningless without context.  How many disciples did he have?  Rhetorical question.  Context is everything with numbers (as with law, I guess).

Then a video of President Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech.  Tucked in there, towards the end, is a lot of boring stuff about how much it was going to cost.  Even great visionaries care about numbers.

Tom reminded us that this month’s numbers or last month’s are useless without context.  Look at the same month last year, compare with the same month five years ago.  What picture is being painted?  What are the trends?  Just don’t ask your Financial Controller to dig out last century’s balance sheets, or you’ll be hated apparently.

And he rounded off with a picture of everyone’s (well, everyone except Andy Murray) favourite tennis player, Roger Federer.  With the reminder that even Rodge needs to practise 2 hours a day just to stand still.  Meaning you don’t understand those numbers unless you spend court time reading them.  And reading some more.

Tom’s view is that since business talks the language of numbers, GCs, indeed all in-house lawyers, need to be conversant in it too.  No excuses.  He admitted numbers can be boring, but essentially the message is, get bored but get literate.  Tough but sage advice.

My earlier conference flippancy was of course tongue in cheek, the many experienced GCs at IHCBP15 were, as the in-house community usually is, generous in sharing best practice and genuine in their wish to ensure their teams are doing the best job possible.  But this blog post is not about lawyers telling other lawyers how to be a good lawyer.  It’s about what the business wants, what the C-Suite demands.  We heard it from the horse’s mouth.

Which is someone stubborn with a GSOH who loves spending time with an Excel spreadsheet.  Like many lawyers, I must have missed that particular class at law school.

Tomorrow’s law firm: has anyone asked its clients?

The quality of a blog post can often be measured by the quality and quantity of the comments appearing beneath it.  Recent articles in The Lawyer examining the most desirable structure for tomorrow’s law firm do not disappoint.  Nor would one expect them to, given their authors, Bruce MacEwan of Adam Smith Esq and Mark Brandon of Overture.

It’s fair to say that Bruce and Mark aren’t exactly on the same page.  Bruce walks us through a four-pronged argument in favour of the demise of the traditional partnership whilst Mark disagrees, highlighting the weaknesses in corporate structures and reminding the reader that the Magic Circle hasn’t exactly fared badly over the last 25 years.

I won’t attempt to summarise the well-argued points that both Bruce and Mark make in more detail but I would like to highlight an important omission from the debate.  Which is the voice of the client.  What does the client want from ‘tomorrow’s law firm’?

As someone working in so-called ‘new law’, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’d join Bruce’s side of the debate and be quick to dance on the grave of the traditional law firm structure.  One of my own most-read (but least popular!) posts dates back to 2011 when I still wore a GC hat and decided to have a pop at law firm PEP so I’m not beyond a poke at the law firm model myself.  But, I’m not going to do that.  In fact, I’m not going to take sides in this debate becauses as Jeremy Hopkins of Obelisk rightly notes in the comments:

“The whole structure thing is a red herring”.

I spent 13 years working in-house and what mattered to me when working with legal service providers (I deliberately avoid using the term law firms) can be summarised as output and value.

When undertaking complex M&A or litigation, did I care about the partnership structure of the Big Law firm I instructed?  No.  When I needed additional bandwidth for business-as-usual work, did I care about the corporate structure of the ‘new law’ service providers I turned to?  Of course not.   And I bet very few GCs give the whole structure issue very much thought at all.

What matters more than structures is business models.  What matters is legal service providers deciding what it is they do well and how best to deliver that in the simplest way possible for their clients.

Look at most of the ‘new law’ providers like the LODs, Obelisks and Radiants – we know what we are good at, we know where we want to be fishing and our business models facilitate that.  Look at the Magic Circle or law firms which are grown up enough to recognise they have sector strengths – equally they know what they are good at too and their partnership structure is no obstruction to them achieving that.

Bruce’s article is merely the hors d’ouvre to a wider debate at the The Lawyer’s Business Summit which I hope takes more time to explore the client’s perspective on this.  Mark certainly asks the right questions in his post:

“Why would clients be better off if law firms acted like corporates?  Would the client get better service, lower cost, better product?  There isn’t a shred of evidence nor any reason to think that law firms would deliver better service or products if they were constituted as corporates instead of partnerships.”

Mark may be right, but equally where is the evidence to demonstrate that traditional partnerships are the most effective vehicle for service delivery?

Both Bruce and Mark conclude with a quick look at the usual reference points for corporate success – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google et al.  Bruce suggests part of their success is down to their corporate (non-partnership) structure.  Mark disagrees.  The red herring has reared its rotting neck again.  The Amazon et als do not succeed because of their structure.  They succeed because they not only know what their customers want, but more pertinently they continually invest in knowing what their customers don’t even know they want until they have it.  This is called product development or R&D in most sectors.

When I was a GC looking at professional life through a client lens, the best external advisors helped make my job easier.  They did this by knowing what I needed, in the very best cases before I did.  As someone helping to run a client-focused business, this is always front of my mind.  Business models and product development facilitate effective client service far more than corporate structures ever will.

Spare a seasonal thought for the lawyers

You can spot a lawyer a mile off at Christmas.

They’re usually the ones not enjoying themselves (well, I guess you could say that the rest of the year too).  At the time of year when the rest of the office winds down, with the exception of the execs driving towards the year-end chequered flag at break neck speed, the lawyers wind up (and get wound up).

While the Communications and Marketing teams tune in Spotify to their Christmas playlists, the only music the lawyers get to listen to is the hold muzak on the numerous conference calls they’ll be dialling into during the December run-in.

As the sales teams stumble between client lunches to the sounds of laughter, the lawyers only get to enjoy black humour engendered by the knowledge that what should be the most fun month of the year isn’t meant for them.

While the IT team worry about how long the free bar will hold for at the office party, the lawyers worry about how much work they are not doing by being there and how tired they will be the next day as the latest round of drafting summons them from their slumber.

And as the office gets deserted increasingly early, the lawyers get left alone in darkened, desolate conference rooms feel increasingly lonely negotiating clauses that no-one else but them will read.

Whilst we all shudder the first time we hear Slade’s Noddy announce that ‘IT’s CHRIIIIISTMAS!’, the lawyers almost break-down, knowing what the month is going to bring for them.

One thought keeps the lawyers going during these dark December nights.  The thought that next year, it won’t be like this, they’ll have changed the way they work, gained more control, learned to dictate the timetable, resourced things differently, forced clients to help themselves more, and just generally taken a big picture January review of the changes they will make so that next year is easier.  It will be better next year, they say.

Maybe they even believe it.

Except usually, that thought gets lost the moment the monster deal is inked or the revenue targets have been hit or (most usually) the non-lawyers decide they want to stop for Christmas after all and stop answering their emails.

The lawyers breathe, crank up their Amazon shopping basket (Prime account, obv), shoot to Waitrose for the organic three bird roast, grab the Hunters for the mandatory Boxing Day walk, chuck a load of money at the Boden sale (you can never have too many chequered garments in your casual wardrobe), fall asleep on the sofa as Jools plays out New Years Eve and before they know it, they’re back at it, the horrors of the December run-in forgotten once more for another 11 months.

Remember folks, a lawyer is for life, not just for Christmas.  Be nice to yours this December.  And remind them this year, just to hold that thought they had about making things better for next.