I made a mistake. It was in 1989. I went in-house and found I was good at my job. It was the first time in my life I truly felt I was good at something. Until then I had found everything hard. Exam results were never adorned with flying colours and my CV, such as it was, looked more apologetic than full of promise.

I don’t know what it was about being an in-house lawyer that made me feel differently. I knew I was not a technically great lawyer. I knew I was not clever, inspirational, or dynamic.

Do you know what? I suspect it was my ordinariness that unlocked my career.

In my law firm I could not hit big, I was human wallpaper. Now, suddenly, my world was transformed. I was allowed into conversations with seriously important folk who had their names on car-parking bays and stuff. I succeeded because I didn’t show anyone up, I didn’t threaten their plans and I didn’t take credit when their ideas went well. Why would I? I was just the lawyer who had to help them do what they wanted to do. I wasn’t important or even useful to their schemes and I was just pleased they let me in.

And yet, in their eyes, perhaps I was the perfect lawyer – I had the job title and the qualification and they could interpret my quiet bemusement as studied and serious reflection infusing their conversation with just enough gravitas to validate their direction of travel. Perfect.

A few years later I made General Counsel. I was still young, mid thirties, Christ! What the hell did I know? I know so little now and it would have been even less back then. Yet people really liked my style, I got stuff done. The law is complex, but right and wrong is easy. We confuse complexity with cleverness, we shouldn’t. I was good because I could be clear about what was right and what was wrong.

So what was my mistake way back in 1989?

It was not seeing the real reason why I suddenly became good at something. I think I was just so pleased to be accepted somewhere that I didn’t analyse it; and later on I just assumed that I was good at it. If I had realised why I was good I could have helped more people more quickly. I could have cut the crap and the self-delusion and I would have been a better mentor far sooner.

Of course it was nothing to do with being a good technical lawyer. It was still me. An average lawyer, below average confidence, above average self-awareness not to think I mattered. However what I became good at, if only I had seen it, was to do three things better than almost anyone I knew then.

Three things that I judge in-house lawyers by. When I say to an in-house lawyer today “you’re really good”, when I say to a General Counsel “you are going to have an amazing career”, I am judging them by these three things.

To drag this out a little more, before I tell you what they are, it will be confusing and may not make sense. This is because what people think they do is not what they actually do. Their vocabulary mis-directs us.

They may say they praise proactivity, demand commerciality and aim to please. They may even believe that these are the stand-out qualities of success in-house.

But these are the wrong words.

These words result in the behaviours that suffocate, confuse, debilitate and undermine. Fool’s gold, false economy and flaccid fallacy. The lazy clichés of unthinking chatter. Bollocks.

To be a success in-house do not be pro-active. Who cares about your opinion? Who wants a lawyer in the room? Stop digging where you are not needed. Treat colleagues like adults and ask simple direct questions that put them in a position to be informed and let them ask you in if they need you.

To be a success in-house do not be commercial. What the f*#k does it mean anyway? Are you the lawyer or are you something else? Are you there to protect the interests of the business or are you there on some sort of flight of ego, infused with digested wisdom and dropping insight like lucky bird poo? Stop.

To be a success in-house stop trying to be liked. You’re not meant to be liked, you’re meant to be the sort of pain in the arse that people will tolerate, just. Being liked is your weakness, your blind spot, your open fly.

Confused? …of course you are.

Am I wrong? …You want to tell me I am, but you are hesitating a little. I must be wrong, but you want to understand this a little bit more.

Let me explain a little bit more.

Being pro-active involves wasting a lot of time, time you do not have. For every ten meetings one is useful. We tolerate nine useless ones and praise ourselves for the one that is ok. We are not panning for gold, we are colleagues in a business that does not need us to sit in endless bloody meetings like a grateful stiff. Send a tape recorder with a message that every ten minutes says “Are we really sure?” and it will be as useful.

Being commercial is probably borderline unethical. Want to be a player? Join the management team and get a proper job. If you are a lawyer your first duty is the Supreme Court. Stop trying to be on the team, you’re not on the team, you’re there to ensure the team plays by the rules. Untuck your shirt from your pants and be the lawyer not the superhero. Of course don’t take obtuse points, don’t waste time, don’t be a tit, but don’t confuse your colleagues either. They have a job, they need you to have your job. Do your job.

Pleasing people is at best a largely insignificant soft benefit from doing your job well. It isn’t the reason you do your job. You are not there to fan the arse of anyone; you should have more self-respect, more respect for your role and take more care over your priorities. Pleasing people inevitably results in three things. 1) No hard metrics to show value, just really lovely feedback. 2) No strategy to manage priority, just too much work. 3) No energy for change, because the business likes our uncomplaining shovelling of their shit.

Ok…I am exaggerating a little (may be a lot) and I am not spoiling for a fight. I just want to challenge lazy thinking. Proactivity and commerciality are perfectly fine and important aspirations, as long as we think about what they truly mean for us.

But know this in your heart – we have spent a generation telling lawyers to be proactive, commercial and liked. We have created a generation of lawyers who are overworked, lack strategy, have not developed any significant technology to support their work and have overseen some of the dumbest corporate governance and compliance failures in our planet’s history.

Challenge yourself. Be honest. Are we too drunk on homemade in-house hooch to just pause and think?

I don’t think we are…

Paul Gilbert, Chief Executive LBC Wise Counsel

August 2014