To be a leader as an in-house lawyer today is to be faced with a bewildering array of ideas, strategies and influences. Reports are written with grim regularity, it is impossible to read them all. Conferences are organised with grim regularity, it is impossible to attend them all. Consultants always have the next great idea with grim regularity, it is impossible to take a sharp stick and poke them all.

Putting flippancy to one side however, I observe that the quality of leadership in-house is nothing like as strong as the quality of the legal work our in-house lawyers do or the quality of the people who are the in-house lawyers. Collectively, and in many cases individually, we need to get better at leadership.

I know that might sound harsh, so let me be very clear about what I mean – I am not saying in-house lawyers are bad leaders; but I am saying we are not fulfilling our potential. I see great potential and talent every day and it inspires me. My concern is that in-house lawyers are not fulfilling the promise of their talent and we all need to get better at leadership if we are to make the difference we ought to make.

I regularly see three diversionary pre-occupations for many leaders in in-house roles. They are diversionary, because they deflect from purpose and their ability to influence even more.

  1. The first is that somewhere, someone has “cracked it”. Someone has the tech, the metrics, and the perfect model all in perfect harmony with the perfect hierarchy and the perfect CEO relationship. If only we could find them/it we will all have found the elixir to eternal in-house legal nirvana.
  1. The second is a slightly needy fixation to assert that General Counsel is a very important role. To adopt another needy leader’s approach – There is a lot of FAKE NEWS, which is SAD, but the GC is always doing a great job. A GREAT JOB!
  1. Third there is often a very self-conscious (and I believe over-promised) assertion that legal teams are business teams. I do not criticise the desire to be accessible, informed, easy to use, forensically relevant and cheerful, but I also want legal teams to define and manage legal, regulatory and compliance boundaries. The team has a critical “check and balance” role that must be visible.

We should move away from these diversionary ideas as quickly as we can.

First no-one has cracked it. Trying to understand what other teams do is natural, but when companies can employ one lawyer or hundreds of lawyers, there self-evidently isn’t a template. The key driver for strategy, for operating models and for resourcing needs is summed up in one word – “purpose”. Quite simply and emphatically “What are you there to do? Why you? Why now? …And to what effect?” If leaders spent more of their time defining their team’s purpose and less time trying to formally or informally benchmark what others do, they would be more successful and better leaders.

Second, I am not convinced that the role of General Counsel is as important as many would like to hope. This isn’t a comment on the quality of the people concerned, but it is my observation that many executives are often at a loss to describe the true value of an in-house team. As a result they tend to see things in a more binary way – in effect for them it is a simple cost and convenience equation over using a law firm. My wish is for in-house leaders to spend less time asserting value as a self-evident truth and more time showing how their actual contribution can be truly influential. It goes back to purpose again, and finding the clarity of purpose which is the indicator of value.

Value, therefore, is intrinsically a question of influence and impact based on successfully implementing purpose. The questions I am interested to explore in this context are for example:

  • What has been the team’s significant, distinct and visible contribution to the success of the business?
  • What has been the team’s significant, distinct and visible contribution to the careers of colleagues in the legal team?
  • What has been the team’s significant, distinct and visible contribution to enhance the sustainable positive impact of the business on customers, suppliers, shareholders and local communities?

Third, leadership must not be just about fitting-in as a good business partner. This may sound a little obtuse, but I firmly believe that a degree of separateness is essential for the success of the role. Blurring the lines between what is expedient and what is right; between what is sustainable and what is only short term; and between what is best practice and what is a “business decision”, are all everyday occurrences. These occurrences however must be shaped by a context which identifies and respects different roles and different boundaries. Artificially conflating lawyers as part of the business potentially messes with accountability and doesn’t enhance it. “Group think” and an overweening desire to facilitate the will of the business are potentially hubristic risks for a GC as much as they are for any other employee.

Of course lawyers should be deeply integrated, passionate communicators, and enthused for the products and services they are helping to shape and make a success; but they must also be advocates for their wider boundary setting/managing purpose too, which is obviously more and different to just these things.

Leadership, viewed in this way, becomes so much more than charisma, power, status or authority. Leadership is about establishing clarity of purpose with an accepted accountability to deliver a contribution that supports that purpose. To do this leaders must also develop both infrastructure and people to improve the team’s opportunity to deliver that contribution and do so respecting every individual’s career and well-being. Now, more than ever, is the time to deliver.

Take care. Paul