The Loneliness of the Long Distance General Counsel

January 9, 2005

Speak to any General Counsel today and ask them what keeps them awake at night and two things are typically mentioned:

? The company?s businesses decisions are made today on the sophisticated analysis of financial, risk, market and trends metrics ? very little of which exists to justify the value of legal services. There is therefore a genuinely pressing need for General Counsel themselves to obtain meaningful data that proves the value of the in-house function, and secondly

? There is an increasing burden of tasks and activities to manage where the risk of failure is more acute than ever before and yet very many General Counsel are doing so with a static, even reducing, resource.

The two issues are linked to create a further problem.

It is far too common to find General Counsel today spending too much time fighting fires, getting into too much detailed activity and focusing on tasks rather than strategy. In consequence the thoughtful, creative planning and deployment of resources to risk is left to an ad hoc day by day judgement call.

The result is that General Counsel are getting busier and busier but they are also probably becoming less and less effective. At least they are less effective than they could be and need to be.

The sadness in all of this is that unless the cycle is broken, talented well meaning people with great integrity are doomed to be frustrated, less valued than they should be by their colleagues in their businesses and probably burnt out.

It is easy to make emotive points in an article but this is actually a fundamental weakness in the way we organise legal services in the United Kingdom.

A behavioural analysis would suggest that we value crisis management more than we value ultra effective process; that we value doing things ourselves rather than effective delegation; that we mistrust claims that technology will make our work more effective and instead we hark back to halcyon days (which never existed anyway) when our word was taken without demur because it was our word.

And yet in the face of the obvious strain all this causes, I do not believe that senior lawyers are doing enough to change how they work. In my judgement the responsibility for this cannot be put at the door of unthinking chief executives, parsimonious budgets or not having the time to think about change.

The responsibility lies with the General Counsel.

This is now their time to seize the initiative to make sure they give a more effective service, that lawyer colleagues have a better opportunity to show the value they add and that risk and tasks are appropriately prioritised.

A general Counsel today should have a significant grip on the following key indicators of value:

? The relative performance of different lawyers to manage case load, relationships and to proactively pre-empt new issues.

? Effective processes for workflow management that are transparent, accountable and robust.

? Data that supports effective reviews and assessments for personal and team development.

? A commitment to process improvement and personal development

? Confident budget forecasting and costs management, in advance of writing cheques.

? Knowledge management that is more than ?e-alerts? but which is targeted and focused and ensures best practice is learned and embedded in the team.

? Demonstrable value from law firms doing outsourced work, including activity that offers the law firm incentives to become more effective as well.

It has become a clich? to say that one can only manage what one can measure and clich?s suffer from being too easy to say. But clich?s are clich?s because at the heart of the sentiment is truth.

The truth in this case is that ?gut feel?, ?intuition?, even ?experience? risk imparting a sense of smoke and mirrors rather than analysis. In the absence of data to analyse, conclusions are all too easily distrusted by executive colleagues. The further truth is that many general counsel have technologies and best practices in place to collect and analyse data from many sources, including invoices from firms, work distribution in their departments, legal risk and even resource gaps to manage that risk. Every other department in the company manages their business using hard data or their management does not survive. Chief executives are now asking general counsel ?how can legal measure and communicate its value?? Those general counsel that will survive are answering the questions, while those that will not survive ignore them or worse yet disguise the truth that they simply do not know.

Now, I am not a technology junky. I do not believe, for example, that Blackberries are a panacea (indeed I have some robust views on how the misuse of the ubiquitous gadget has exacerbated many of the problems I describe in this article).

So, everything should be seen proportionately but there is some amazingly thoughtful and helpful technology in the marketplace today and at the very least, we owe it to ourselves, our teams and our employers to have reviewed its worth in our own contexts.

With that in mind I would urge that three points are essential to have the clearest view on and for which some investment in process and technology support is near essential:

? What are the team?s work priorities and what value do the team add to those issues? How can you identify the things to stop doing and how do you manage the transition from undertaking too much low risk activity and preserve relationships?

? What are the outsource trends (costs, case numbers, effective resolutions/completions)? Can you negotiate with law firms from a position of expert knowledge? Can you challenge their analysis of why things take so long and cost so much? Can you help them find process improvement that will say you money? Can you hook into their professional support resources in a meaningful way?

? What is the cost of the service (internal and external combined) and how is value derived from the mix between work undertaken in-house and outsourced? Do you dread being asked by the CFO why legal expenses always exceed budget? Do you know what it costs to run a case in-house and therefore how much money could be saved by increasing the available internal resource? Are you outsourcing the right work at the right time to maximise the value of your external relationships?

There are some big questions raised in these last three bullet points. Some are daunting and difficult, but they all have a solution and they all should be part of the General Counsel?s armoury.

If you are a General Counsel who has read this piece and wondered what to do next, it is not a hopelessly difficult thing to do. At least make time to find out what is out there. Attend seminars, read articles, network with peers and ask how they are solving these same problems. The issues you face are not unique; others have successfully addressed the same issues and in the process discovered that their loneliness is not a fact of life, but rather a consequence of their own inability to devote time and effort toward action.

If you are a General Counsel who has not even had time to read this far?good luck my friend, it?s going to get tougher still!

Being a General Counsel today can be a lonely difficult journey, but it can be, should be the best job in the world. Find the means to leverage your worth and a whole new world will open up for you.

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