Can we trust the GC?

July 14, 2015

“What’s your ambition son?”

“Well dad, I’d like to be a plausible advisor”

“Good boy. And then one day you might even be a trusted advisor too.”

Please excuse my language, but WTF is a “trusted advisor”? And how the hell did it ever become something to strive for?

I have an old fashioned view of the worth of different jobs. I expect my plumber to be a good plumber, and to be trusted with plumbing. I expect the bar staff to be good at bar work and to be trusted with it too. In law if the pinnacle is to become a “trusted advisor” what are the steps beneath this exalted status? What is the entry level? Would we say of the newly appointed GC “there is potential for them, one day, to be a trusted advisor, but until then they are not to be trusted so much.”

It is all a nonsense. It is a fabricated, misleading, disingenuous, excluding, vacuous, pointless, valueless and ultimately self-harming mirage. Self-inflated importance and self-regulated tosh. It is ego incontinence.

It is our fault, we have allowed this happen. It is discussed with seriousness by people at conferences and events, it is given credibility by cliché and validity by the lack of challenge. But we should ALL know better. I first wanted to believe in it, it sounds like it might mean something, but despite my best efforts I have not found anything approaching a consistent definition, let alone come close to understanding the value it brings. It appears to mean that the wearer of this particular crown of smoke and mirrors can:

  • Hear things that might not be heard
  • Talk candidly when others may not
  • Influence behind the scenes
  • Shape without being seen to take over.

Well, frankly, whoopee-do! Is that it? Is this what the decades of evolution of the role of General Counsel has brought us to? Is it really the case that the pinnacle of a profession, glory be, is to be in the room and not be ignored.

I have such a big a problem with this because I would want a trainee in the room not to be ignored. Frankly I want everyone in the room not to be ignored.

Furthermore, who cares? How many General Counsel in banks considered themselves trusted advisors and what good did it do customers, employees and shareholders when the whole stinking edifice shook to its core?

We have made a grave miscalculation. Once upon a time there was a choice.

Choice number one was to run a legal team like it was a contributing part of the business. Define purpose, agree contribution, deliver contribution, measure success and repeat. This would involve knowing that you had a purpose beyond being busy; that you had to have a conversation with the business to agree the contribution required and that you could then deliver it and measure it.

Choice number two was to consider choice number one a little bit mechanical and vulgar and instead pretend that IT was for admin people, process was for people without flair and measuring things was for our dull accountant friends. Instead the role was without purpose, it was to respond in the moment, flinging ourselves around the outfield saving boundaries and making spectacular catches.

Validation was all around, because in this paradigm the lawyer both creates the bottleneck and then ingenuously resolves it. It is almost clever. The lawyer is both the problem and the solution. How nicely conceived; the more inefficient we are, the more heroic we must be, the more people comment on our heroics.

We can still choose option one. We can still make it so much better; but we do need to realise that the real conversation is not about the heroics, the real conversation is about other things:

How come you guys have nothing to measure? How come you guys work so late and still have a back-log? How come you guys look so stressed and yet you never ask for help, you just want even more people like you to do what you do in the same way you do it?

Don’t get me wrong, I know the lawyers are doing loads of important things and adding hugely to their businesses, but it isn’t by design of their infrastructure or the clarity of their purpose. Launch a thousand arrows and some will hit the bulls-eye. Never mind the collateral damage, the wasted effort, just look at that one pure hit bulls-eye.

The time has come to be a bit more focussed.

General Counsel, you need to get a grip of your role. Why does it matter? You need to ensure you have a plan to resource the work that matters. Do not fill up on activity and then hope magically that new hours will be found. You are not a Time Lord; you are just rubbish at saying “no” to people.

General Counsel, if your experience of IT is a teenager under your desk, wearing a comedy tie, unplugging your laptop and asking you if you have backed-up this century please have a word with yourself and get some advice from people who can help you.

General Counsel, if the last time you considered KPI’s was at that nice conference you went to last year (and every year) where everyone agreed it was tricky, go to a different event next time.

General Counsel you need to work out that if you get busier every year your people will break at some point. Is your plan to break people? I only see strategies and behaviours that are designed to break people. We wrote about this, it is more than important. Get this wrong, people get hurt.

General Counsel you need to get a grip on what is actually going on. If what you measure is how late you stay in the office you should consider a career change. You are not really cutting it as a GC.

(I love you really)

Paul Gilbert


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