The Mentor Chapter Ten – Now what?

March 12, 2023

The Golden Heart in Nettleton Bottom holds a special place in this story and in this exhibition. It was where I met Geoff Williams on a cool summer’s evening having left United Assurance a couple of months before. It is still 2000 and I have a decision to make about my career and about who I am.

Geoff was the Company Secretary at C&G when I was there. He joined not long after me, hand-picked by our Chief Executive. He was a little intimidating to meet at first, immaculately dressed, quite formal in tone, and unashamedly precise in language both written and spoken.

Despite my casual and often eccentric acquaintance with English grammar rules, we became great friends. Geoff was not a lawyer, but I think I learned more from him about how to be a lawyer than anyone else in my life. He is the cleverest person I have ever met, with strong views and wide, eclectic interests. He is fearless in pursuing what is right and defiant in the face of bullshit. He is politically astute, but never, ever has he played politics.

I have always described Geoff as my mentor. He is a man of wisdom and compassion who is meticulous in his work, but generous and supportive at the same time. His standards are almost impossibly high, but you will never feel inadequate in his presence. He embodies the word “professional” and I aspired to carry just some of his gravitas and assurance. He is someone I love very much and whose opinion I have always sought on all my most important decisions.

The Golden Heart is a faded, unpretentious sixteenth century pub with flagstone floors, nooks, alcoves and ceilings designed to catch out first-time visitors. Nettleton Bottom nestles in a dip between Cheltenham and Cirencester and is a place that could not be further removed from corporate life or my existential career anxieties.

We met so that I could talk to him about something I was struggling to share with anyone else. I wanted to tell him that I was unsure if I would ever apply for a new General Counsel role again; I wanted to tell him that I was struggling and lost.

In the end I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the pain I felt, but looking back I have the strongest feeling that I didn’t need to. And it makes me love him even more.

I told Geoff that I wanted to help lawyers be more effective, to feel more valued and to find a way to enjoy their roles more. I wanted our contribution to be more than advisory, but vital and right. I wanted us to look after each other, but to know we carried a responsibility for interests wider than the narrow priorities of a pressing task list. I wanted us to speak up when others wouldn’t or couldn’t, I wanted us to be proud of the difference we made, of the harm we prevented and the good we achieved.

I was enthusiastic and positive, but my ideas lacked any of the detail I knew that Geoff would typically seek. I half expected him to tell me I was a bloody fool; that I was at the height of my powers and it was madness to start something new that no-one had told me was needed. And that I was forgoing salary and security and potentially trashing my CV for an inconsequential diversion.

I pressed on, and Geoff listened quietly without pushing back on anything I said. I told him that I knew people struggled, that it was a lonely place sometimes, but that there were things we could all do better and that I believed people would pay for help and guidance they could trust. I guess you don’t have to be a psychotherapist to know that I was describing my pain, and that the idea to help others was in part a projection of that pain, and in part a hope that I would find a way to help myself.

Geoff told me he was proud of me. I still hold those few words close to my heart even now. He said I had a chance to do something different and important, and that he trusted my judgment that this would work. I heard his words and it felt like I was being released from a trap.

We talked and talked and, as we did so in this quiet corner of Gloucestershire calm, I could feel that I was turning a corner and the light might not be dimmed forever.

The relief I felt was huge. I think I needed permission not to conform, but I needed to hear this from Geoff whose judgement was always unswerving and true. All my life I had tried to fit in and never really succeeded, but now for a while at least I could try to find my own way. Geoff gave me that permission and I will always be indebted to him for his love and care at that time.

The truth of the matter, of course, was that in so many ways this was a bloody foolish idea. I had no plan, no clue, no clients, no one to follow, no model to repeat. Geoff would have known this too, but he didn’t say a word against it. I think he knew, as I did, that in this dark place, we couldn’t extinguish any light I might be holding, however flickering and small it might be.

The wisest man I knew had given me permission to gently hold a very unwise idea. For every single one of us there are going to be times when we need to hold an unwise idea and still be told we are loved and that people are proud of us. Sometimes, doing the right thing for us means to necessarily separate ourselves from the crowd. Sometimes doing the right thing for others is to support them when they need to do this too.

Even as I write these words and see them on the page for the first time, I am deeply moved by how kind and profound his encouragement was for me. I felt heard and I felt understood. I felt it might be ok to be me.

This was going to be my way back. I would meet, listen to, and help as many lawyers as possible. I would share what I found. I would claim no insight that was special to me, nor credit for the ideas I shared, but I would share and keep sharing. The more people I could meet, the more ideas I would be able to share. I was not wise myself, nor did I want to be a self-appointed guru, or claim to be an expert in anything; I was just going to be me, meeting good people, listening to them and sharing whatever I could.

However, at no point did I feel that this would be my forever path. More than anything, I just needed to take some control of my vulnerability, and I needed to find a way to pause the relentlessness of how careers are so often perceived. I also needed to learn my craft. There is still no required training to prepare you for becoming a General Counsel; back then I had already had two such roles and in different ways I was ill-equipped for both. I was determined that this must never happen to me again.

The next few months, perhaps for the next year or more, I was going to learn from everyone I met. Then, when I might apply for my next General Counsel role, whenever that might be, I was going to be a fucking awesome candidate. I would carry the wisdom and experiences with me of the very best people in the legal profession. I would know the importance of the role and how to use its power well. I would be able to make my difference and grow, and not be consumed by doubt. I would never be caught out again. I would never be undermined again. I would never need to cry silent bathroom tears again.

Take care. Paul xx

To be continued

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