William is the General Counsel of the global media company, Conde Nast. He has spent most of his career helping creators continue to sustainably make and share content in a globally disrupted and digitally driven world whilst trying to ensure they get paid for doing so. Prior to Conde Nast, William worked as a lawyer for Penguin, Informa and Cambridge University Press. He has also worked in Government Relations as Director of Policy & General Counsel at the UK Publishers Association and as a Director of the Federation of European Publishers in Brussels. He lives in Cambridge, UK, with his wife, Louise, their 4 children and a large pile of magazines.
This is his guest post
In 1999 I responded to a job advert that said:
“Help needed to be on the front line of advising and protecting people and businesses from their own mistakes and the consequences of a business model based around sometimes uncontrollable and robotically generated products and services. Must be commercially and financially aware. Must also be willing to work across all time zones, some war zones, be permanently on call 24/7, aware of all cultures, religions and perspectives, expected to resolve all manner of conflicts and handle issues arising with relevant legal expertise, discretion, wisdom, judgment and diplomacy. Should expect regular ethical dilemmas. Should not expect to be publicly acknowledged or thanked for their work very often as this would draw attention to confidential and embarrassing issues. Is expected to be able to predict and protect people from the future. Must also have up to date technical legal skills across multiple jurisdictions. Some travel involved, potentially at short notice without being able to go home to get your own underwear first. Will be expected to travel to a nuclear testing zone, have their car tailed by criminal gangs, face unfair and accidental criminal charges and narrowly avoid terrorist incidents. Ability to evacuate people and companies from war zones also required. Bonus potentially available but you will likely have to work hardest in the years of worst financial performance so don’t count on it. Must be capable of managing potential impact on your physical and mental health and be realistic about holidays and your availability for friends and family. Must like rollercoasters as you may not often feel in control or be able to get ahead of the curve.”
That is of course not true. There was no such job advert.
In fact, in applying to study law, I responded to a teenage desire within me to help advocate for truth, protect people, do something that involved the two things I enjoyed most – arguing and writing – and in some way be involved with this new thing called the internet which allowed me to listen to music I couldn’t afford to buy.
What happened to change my teenage ideals into what I’ve ended up doing?
Well, quite alot.
The iPhone. The ipad. 3G. 4G. 5G. The Human Rights Act. GDPR. The smart phone. Zoom. AirPods. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Tik Tok. The Bribery Act. Brexit. Trump as a politician. A land war in Europe. War in Iraq. War in Afghanistan. 9/11. The rise of China. The rise of India. The rise of the Middle East. The e privacy directive. Global heating as an accepted fact. Reality TV. The App. AI. The Metaverse. NFTs. Covid. Interest rates of 0.5%. Inflation at 11%. The financial crisis. Quantitative easing. The breadth and central importance of the quest for social justice.
I could go on. None of these existed the day I began my journey as a lawyer. And yet all now shape fundamentally my work and my life.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well because I want you to know that as an in house lawyer in an international organisation, you have one of the world’s most exciting but most difficult jobs.
People might think we “do contracts”. But in fact, the sheer range and complexity of the issues you are relied upon to manage combined with, usually, an inability to particularly control your workflow, resources or working conditions and the gap between what you are trained and schooled to do versus what in reality is (often silently) expected of you makes this career you have chosen to be one of unique complexity, unpredictability, diversity and intensity.
We are daily faced with an obligation to help a business move forward in the right direction.
We are by their side as they take each step at whatever pace they need to go.
But we must also be out in front, clearing bushes and brambles to allow easy passage on the path ahead.
And sometimes hanging back, cleaning up the mess we leave behind.
Quietly, constantly, steadfastly helping.
Telling the truth – even if (particularly when) people don’t want to hear it.
To me, rightly or wrongly, the role has always been essentially a selfless one. By which I mean one that involves giving yourself and your time to help others with their problems. We don’t have an agenda other than to ensure we have what we need to support others with theirs in an effective and neutral way. Few other departments in a company can say that.
But if being an ”in house” lawyer is primarily a selfless act then why do it? If you want to live a life of service there are surely better and more noble causes? If you want to be a lawyer, there are more lucrative sorts. And if you want to work in business, there are easier gigs than being a lawyer or in legal.
To me, it is the Opportunity. To help ensure that companies can do business, people can be employed and investors can take the informed and conscious risk necessary to create wealth.To ensure that the rules for international trade are maintained, so that business can take place between peoples and companies of all countries, shapes and sizes. To be able to work across everything in a company – all levels, all departments, all markets. To help others be their best. To recover from their mistakes and dig them out of holes. To help them in their most difficult and darkest moments. To be the first and last line of defence. To help creative people share the wonder of what they do and get paid properly for doing it. And to help society benefit from what they create.
I never knew that a career in the law could lead me to so many interesting places, to meet so many amazing people and experience in real time some of the biggest challenges the world has faced in my lifetime.
But I suppose that’s because I never knew back then what the world would become. Isn’t war what my grandparents dealt with so I didn’t have to? What have computers got to do with books?
Over the next 20 years, even more things will happen that we can’t possibly imagine today.
When they do, whatever human or robot is in the driving seat, you can be sure that one of us – their in house lawyer – will be making sure everyone and everything arrives safely and on time.
People won’t find the fact that happened remarkable. They may assume it was easy or attribute the successful fulfilment of the business goal being solely down to someone else.
But we’ll know.
We’ll know that it was our obligation to ensure it all happened smoothly.
And we took the opportunity to do what was necessary to get it just right in the months before, during and after it happened.
In spite of all that has happened, 20 years after I finished my law degree – only one thing bothers me about my career choice – the role title of In house lawyer. It is such an odd and clunky name. Designed by law firm lawyers (traditionally the privileged majority of our profession but for how much longer?) to subtly denigrate us and be reductive when compared to them and imply our partiality versus their supposed impartiality.
We are lawyers – wholly and truly. But rather than being less than other lawyers as the “in house” prefix implies), we are in fact much much more.
Interpreters. Supporters. Enablers. Problem Solvers. Advisors. Ethical compasses. Protectors. Preparers. Cleaner uppers.
Partners. Yes, partners. That’s it.
At least those law firms got one thing right.
So chapeau to you all. For quietly assuming your obligations and even more quietly taking the opportunity in front of you.