It was probably about four years ago deep into a parched rainless summer. After a stiflingly hot, slow Tube ride and then a longer walk than was ideal in a city where the sun’s heat bounces off glass and is stored in pavements to burn your feet, I arrived at the door for an event hoping more than anything for super efficient air-con and a chance to lean against a marble pillar.
He, on the other hand, arrived in a chauffeur driven Mercedes S Class with tinted windows and the whiff of maturing LTIPs. I heard him tell his uniformed driver to be back in sixty minutes, he would not stay for any networking. With that he walked briskly and purposefully into the building. I watched this little story unfold with a bystanding couple who had paused and wondered out loud who the important person might be. As I pushed on a door that should have been pulled, I wondered briefly about my life choices. I used to be a GC once you know; had I stayed in my role would I now be driving around in a big black “fuck-off” limousine?
I was there as part of a panel that had been assembled to discuss a hot topic with hot takes. The panel discussion was memorable only for one remark made by the S Class GC. The moderator’s question was something like “should GCs be on the board?”
It is an old chestnut and there are good points for and against, but my answer has always been frankly, no. The S Class GC however spoke at length, sharing all different styles of importance, ending with “Who would want to be a GC who was not on the board?”
I am always a little lost in these moments. Partly I marvel at the ease with which some people can run off a cliff of self-awareness fully expecting that their granite-like confidence will overcome a mere immutable law of nature like gravity. And partly I am caught wondering if my almost imperceptibly raised eyebrow and studied pause conveys quite enough “FFS. What. An. Absolute. Arse.”
The future of in-house lawyers is full of possibilities, but I would like to suggest that the S Class GC might not be the apogee of our evolution, more a variant of the species – Homo Erectus Knobus.
My observation, however, is that for every S Class GC there are a thousand others who every day have too much to do, too little time to plan, too little resource to be fair to their teams and, unsurprisingly, too little energy to fulfil the potential for their role. These people might aspire to be on the board one day, and that should be their call in their context, but what they need most is space to think, plan and to lead.
In my view, Homo Erectus Knobus is an ethical risk. Their independence is swamped in gold cards and platinum access. For the rest of us, who arrive hot, sweaty, irritated and tired, hoping for the air con, the difficult question is whether we might be an ethical risk too. We are not blind, or wilful or wear tailored suits woven from freshly mown hubris. We know our role and we know we must be courageous too, not least because every day we fight our small battles for our business and our teams; but we are also weakened by the environments in which we work. We make do, we accept more for less, and we always hope that next year will be easier than the last, but it never is.
A metric of our success is not whether we saved up our minor illnesses to coincide with our annual leave. Avoiding burnout is not a mark of how strong we are. I also fear, more than ever, that hindsight will not be our friend if one day we discover that the air con was not super efficient, but was just a fan awaiting the arrival of a crock of flying shit.
Our role is not to play the heroic underdog, nor obviously the prized tit, but the space between is our compelling reason to be; a place to make our case of which we are certain. To have no regrets.
Take care. Paul xx