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.


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!




I’ve never blogged about anything remotely political, economic, charitable or campaign-driven before. I’m making a rare and brief exception here (don’t worry, normal service will be resumed in the next blog post).  And for the first time ever I’m going ‘pay per view’ for this post.  It will cost you £5 to read – click here and pay up first (if you haven’t, I’ll know, I’ve got those cookie wotsits installed and stuff like that and your screen will explode in 60 seconds).

This week, via Twitter, I saw these four things.

First, the tragic picture which distressed the world and made many of us sit up and take proper notice not only of the refugee crisis but also the scandalous apparent lack of co-ordinated governmental approach to help those poor, desperate human beings fleeing desperation beyond description.

Second, the FT, a newspaper which does not publish firm calls to action unless it believes in them, published a leader which I believe had no small part in prompting our Prime Minister into what looks like a change of heart and government policy.

Third, that wise friend of many lawyers, Paul Gilbert, made his own small but powerful contribution to the debate.  Another call to action.

And finally, Sean Jones QC he…..well, he did what most of us didn’t do whilst going about our oh so busy lives.  He bloody well did something.  He did something simple.  He did something clever.  He did something which will make a little bit of a difference.  He did this.

I don’t really know Sean, I’ve met him once briefly, but he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who wants loads of back slapping and ‘well dones’.   He wants action.  He wants us to do something.  So if you’re a lawyer and even if you’re not, please donate again (coz you did at the top of the page, right, otherwise your screen will have exploded?) to the #billablehour campaign  by clicking here.  It won’t undo the desperate tragedy of Aylan Kurdi’s death.  But it might just go a small way towards helping make lives better.

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.

Art, brains and law

Have you heard the one about the artist, the neuroscientist and the lawyer?

No, nor had I until I attended my first Life With Law event last night where the programme (curated by a barrister believe it not) facilitated just that.

Life With Law is an LOD project, a series of talks which offer inspiration and ideas for living a good, happy and satisfying life whilst – wait for it – practising law.  Does that remind you of your training contract?  No, me neither.

I started my evening in discussion with a Legal IT Consultant as to whether the contract drafting process itself is creative.  The ability of the lawyer to speak to their client, grasp the idea percolating in a client’s brain and put it down clearly on paper.  We reached broad agreement that this was an example of creativity, of sorts, in action.  But I ended my evening putting forward this theory to one of our LOD lawyers who tore the argument apart, pointing out that the lawyer is merely documenting the client’s own creativity, rather than demonstrating any creative nous themselves. It’s up to you to decide who is correct.

Perhaps that lawyer’s view was reflected in an audience poll.  Whilst the majority of the audience felt themselves to be creative, only a minority believed the practice of law offers much room for creativity.  We’re just a bunch of frustrated muses trapped behind our keyboards.  Arguably most worryingly of all, only a few felt that their workplace was where they thought most creatively about work.

The main event was talks from Cathy Haynes, a curator, artist and writer, and Professor Vincent Walsh, Professor of Human Brain Research at UCL.

Perhaps surprisingly, we heard some common themes from the worlds of art and science (which reminds me that when I was at Uni, the Law faculty couldn’t decide which of these categories it sat in and Law was designated as a Social Science – perhaps that explains a lot).

Cathy advised us to: make it a habit to break our habits; create virtuous problems; set ourselves a weekly pleasurable conundrum; create empty head space; get bored to prompt some creativity; have the courage to be vulnerable; dare to get into the arena; not be afraid to fail; learn the rules then forget them; and do something different in our working week.

The Prof underlined the need to sleep a lot and often.  As he memorably put it:

Sleep is 36 per cent of our lives and we just hope it kind of goes alright [but] the smart things in the brain are done when we aren’t thinking.  Sleep helps creative problem solving.

There you have it – if you ever needed an excuse for being late for work, forget the tube strikes, this goes straight to the top of the list.

Life With Law attracts a broad church, there’s no agenda and the only rule is to come with an open mind.  You might not agree with everything you hear, but what you do hear will make you think and just possibly take you outside of your comfort zone (I certainly was when the discussion turned to finding out the weight of our soul…).

Follow @LifeWithLaw for details of the next outing and see #LifeWithLaw for tweets from the event.

Assembly-line lawyering

I was talking to a friend over coffee the other day, describing what my old gig as an in-house lawyer had been like (don’t you just wish you had more coffees with me?).  I said that much of the time it had felt like sitting at the end of a never-ending conveyor belt of work, dropping onto my desk.  However hard I worked, the conveyor belt kept on delivering more and more packages of work that needed assembling, faster and faster.

That’s not to look for sympathy.  There aren’t too many jobs where the conveyor belt consistently delivers quality packages of work that require the recipient to apply legal intellect, strategic thought and commercial awareness.  And whilst most lawyers are not fat cats, the corporate end of the profession gets paid well for what it does.  But the problem with being a lawyer is that lawyering is a time intensive activity.  By the time you’ve dealt properly with one piece of work that fell off the conveyor belt, several more pieces of work have landed around your feet needing to be assembled.

How do lawyers deal with this problem?  Well, for a smart bunch of people, we don’t always deal with it very smartly.  The initial inclination is to work harder.  That might be followed by a decision to hire more employees and get them to work harder too.

Yet my experience and that of many lawyers I know, is that working harder and hiring more permanent staff does not solve the ‘conveyor belt problem’.  Admittedly, it might mitigate it in the short-term.  Staying in the office until the small hours might mean there is one less package of work lying on the floor when the lawyer finally leaves to go home, but it doesn’t mean that everything gets dealt with.  Hiring new staff can have a short-term impact on picking up all of those as yet unopened work packages, but the problem with new staff is that eventually they end up sitting at the end of their own conveyor belts of work and suddenly two of you have the same problem that caused you to hire the second person in the first place.

So, what’s to do?

You know that there is a change afoot in the way we think about work when the Financial Times, the self-proclaimed ‘friend of the honest financier’, is publishing articles raising difficult questions about the long hours culture prevalent in the legal profession.

As the FT’s John Gapper put it:

“The good news is that this method of organising work is inefficient and thus ripe for reform. The bad news is that many lawyers do not care much about that.”

Gapper’s first sentence is spot on.  It goes back to my earlier point about lawyers needing to work smarter, not harder.  I’m conscious that ‘smarter, not harder’ is a throw away line and any lawyer reading this at 9pm on an evening looking at the piles of work in front of them is entitled to think that it’s easier said than done to re-engineer work processes.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

I don’t though agree with Mr Gapper’s view that ‘many lawyers do not care much about’ working long hours.  Nobody joins the legal profession because they want to spend 12 or more hours each day behind a desk.  The motives for joining are varied and not the point of this blog post.  But a desire to work long hours is not a reason to become a lawyer, people become lawyers in spite of the long hours culture, not because of it.

And it is now acceptable to say that.  It is acceptable in the modern legal workplace, whether in a law firm or in-house, for a lawyer to say that she aspires for a better work/life balance, that he wants to work flexibly, that she’d like to work from home on a day when there are no client meetings.

Indeed, a recent research report found that:

“Many young lawyers would like the law to be more like a commercial business than a profession and see embracing technology as the key to transforming what many consider to be outdated working practices.”

It may surprise you, if you have read this far, that this research was not commissioned by a legal commentator who has never sat behind a lawyer’s desk or a wishy washy not-for-profit think tank, but by Eversheds, a City law firm.  [*Teaser alert* tune in to the @LOD_Law twitter feed over the next week or two for a very interesting research piece we’ll shortly be publishing.]

Lawyers don’t really like to work long hours – they don’t mind hard work and they’ll pull an all-nighter without blinking if they have to, but they don’t like to work incessantly long hours simply on the basis it was ever thus.  They also want to work more flexibly, to take more control over their career and increasingly they don’t mind telling their superiors this.  Many are increasingly working as freelancers as a way of seizing back control of their career.  It is a given that technology will at some point help re-configure the conveyor belt, although I’m not aware of any single killer app which has done that significantly just yet.

The much heralded and inevitable change in legal services will come through incremental re-configuration of the way that lawyers work, not by big bang trickery.  For example, legal process improvement is a bit of a buzz work in law firm circles at the moment.  I’ve seen it in action and it is an incredibly powerful exercise that does not require expensive technology or a huge shift in working practices.  Nor do you need to be a six sigma black belt to make it work (I had to look it up too).  Two or three hours spent logically de-constructing a workflow can quickly highlight where the inefficiencies are in a particular work-stream, what the ‘repeat problems’ are that come up and how best to reduce them.

It’s all about working smarter, not working harder.  Lawyers are definitely smart.  When you’re next sitting at the end of a conveyor belt of work, you have two choices.

Work harder and sit there longer to get a bit more done.  That’s the wrong answer by the way.

Or instead, be braver, work smarter, ask yourself (and your team) a few questions.  How does the conveyor belt work?  Is the right work being put onto it in the first place?  Who does the work that falls off it?  How do they do it?  And most of all, just approach the exercise with a big WHY do we do it like this?  Don’t think you can’t make it work better. Of course you can.

You just need to switch it off for a few hours to see how.

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.