As a small boy, one phrase that was indelibly impressed on to my consciousness at this post Christmas time of year was “It is the thought that counts”.

It was because a very old friend of my mother would insist on sending to me year after year what seemed to me to be the most ghastly, inappropriate and frankly ludicrous Christmas presents that I (or any of my friends) could possibly imagine.

My mother however would smile at my confusion and irritation and insist that I write the most positive and warm thank you letters that I could. She would say, and I can hear her now, “it is the thought that counts”, even though I would mutter under my breath that actually not much thought had been given.

I was reminded of this again a week or so before Christmas at a cocktail party held by one of the City law firms. I was talking to another guest, a barrister, who told me how little thought some lawyers gave to their instructions. To him, on many occasions, solicitors simply passed the buck of responsibility by sending through poorly prepared papers and poorly articulated arguments.

Not much “thought” to count there then, I thought.

I began to wonder whether this was more common than any of us would hope. Perhaps we have become too busy or too blas? to “think”. For lawyers especially, however, that is surely the most awful waste of talent and opportunity.

You see, “thoughtfulness”, to be literally “thoughtful” about our work and how it impacts on our businesses, is one of the qualities I’most admire in lawyers. And yet, perhaps too often, lawyers do not “think” enough, they simply “do”.

They churn out the same old clauses, the same old phrases, the same old excuses and then the law firms expect the same old billing to make them the same old money?

As a result, I have a real and heartfelt concern about our profession, and 2003 might just be its watershed year.

Let me ask you, what is going to be different in 2003 for you?

How will you and your team be better lawyers, better managers of risk, become more rounded business people by this time next year? Can you look back on 2002 now and honestly say how much value the team contributed to your business? How much thought are you giving now to turning your team into a force for excellence that is mutually supportive, fundamentally expert and thoroughly empathetic with business needs?

I know it’s a tough call. You have pressure on budgets, recruitment is never easy (even if you have scope to take on extra staff, which you probably do not) and life can sometimes feel like just one long crisis to manage.

The point is though that if you do not take responsibility for your improvement and development, no one else will.

A while ago perhaps none of this would have mattered so much. Businesses needed lawyers and grew their legal teams. As a result in-house lawyers could loudly proclaim how important they were. Of course they are important, vital in fact; but being important does not also mean that in-house lawyers are immune from the constant need and drive to be better and to add more value and to be seen to add more value.

I think 2003 will see some very interesting changes to the way businesses begin to think about lawyers?not a revolution perhaps, but some fundamental shifts in perception that we would all be foolish to ignore.

Can you answer the following questions?

  • How much does the in-house legal team cost your business?
  • How much do the legal team spend on external advice?
  • For both, how much value has the business bought?
  • Does the business have any real appreciation of this value?
  • How are you demonstrating to the business that, internally and externally, value for money is improving?

Law firms know, for example, that hourly billing hides value, but they have become very successful on the back of it and have no real incentive to change.

Law firms also know that inefficient instructions and poorly managed clients increase billable time and again have no incentive to change.

Law firms know that in-house lawyers will rarely scrutinise for value but only seem to be concerned that the billing is as predicted.

If your chief executive knew these things, and then saw how much money was spent on lawyers, how do you think he or she would react?

Governance now is a big word in the boardroom. Questions might be asked about this too. In-house lawyers need to contribute to governance issues, but how many really do this?

How many in-house lawyers consider their brief simply to be a functional one according to their specific expertise? Yet their professional duty is to “Act in the best interests of the client”. The “best interests” of the client are not, in my judgement, served by small gangs of lawyers sitting in subject silos waiting for their business to find them some work.

In-house lawyers must exert their position, their knowledge and their duty to add value across their organisations.

Until now, in-house lawyers have largely escaped the criticisms that have been directed at lawyers in law firms down the years. They have been seen as a new breed. They have made a positive and significant impact on their businesses and they have helped to improve the effectiveness of many law firms. But it is not enough, not by a long way.

2003 therefore is the time to make another significant breakthrough, to move up a gear and to harness talent and opportunity as thoughtfully as we can.

Post Enron, in the midst of possible professional deregulation, in a world where shareholder scrutiny is more intense and where markets can crush businesses almost overnight, is your in-house team up to the job?

  • Can you articulate and demonstrate real value?
  • Can you plan the development of your team to give it strategic focus?
  • Can you truly manage the external lawyers so that they too are delivering real value to your business?
  • Can you improve your ability to help assess and then manage the risks your business faces each day?

2003 is such an important year. Will your team hide from the challenge, hoping that all is going to be well or will you lead the need to develop and grow to face the challenges that your businesses face?

My advice is do not be found wanting. It is the thought that counts.