Lawyers, especially those of us from the corporate world, seldom gain the opportunity to do something which is both truly ground-breaking and puts something back into the broader legal community. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to join the LBC Wise Counsel team working with colleagues in South Africa, in holding the inaugural meeting of the Legal Counsel Roundtable Africa. This was a two-day meeting for in-house counsel in Africa, creating an opportunity for learning, but also and perhaps more enduringly, to form a community.
The meeting took place in Cape Town in a hot week in March while Albion shivered, so the benefits of going were not purely professional and we made good use of the time we had allowed to get used to the local environment. But by Sunday evening, delegates were starting to gather and it was time to get our working heads on.
I already knew from working with and managing lawyers in South Africa that they possessed high levels of experience, technical excellence and commercial savvy. So bringing a programme directed at direct legal skills and awareness would, however high in quality, not represent the landmark we were looking for to launch the Roundtable properly. Instead the event had to provide content which respected the seniority of most of the delegates, but more importantly required their active participation in order to create a true Roundtable.
The programme was overseen by LBC Wise Counsel’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Gilbert. Paul started the event by outlining the schedule for the next two days, presenting some of his insights on the role of the in-house lawyer, drawn from his experience as a general counsel as well as his subsequent career as an advisor to the in-house community. After an entertaining and thought-provoking presentation, delivered with the panache and insight which participants in UK-based events such as the LBCambridge programme would recognise, there was then an extended time for the delegates to discuss the themes developed by Paul, sharing their own experiences and responses to the issues he had aired.
Sitting at each table of delegates was a so-called “Wise Owl” whose role was to help shape the conversation, ensure all delegates were involved and to collate the table’s key findings and questions – again a feature familiar to LBCambridge attendees. This was a role I had come to fulfil, together with Feizal Hajat from Birmingham City Council, Lawrence Smith from LBC Wise Counsel, and two locals, Graeme Wilson from Legal & Commercial Solutions and Ursula Fikelepi from the South African banking giant ABSA. Subsequent sessions addressed the issues of operating in tune with the business, the future of in-house legal services, choosing and using technological support and the effective selection and use of in-house counsel. Careful use was made of a case study – which a number of delegates found uncannily descriptive of their own situations – to underpin the discussions.
The highly participative nature of the sessions meant that the delegates had begun to know one another well even by the first day and this made for some lively conversations in the room. Dinner also provided a suitable environment for delegates to develop these relationships and to have individual discussions with Wise Owls. In my experience both here and in Cambridge, the role that the Owls play in facilitating discussion in the main part of the day makes them more approachable than if their role had been a more traditional one as presenters. As a result, the “off-market” conversations that delegates have with Wise Owls, as well as each other, represent some of the most valuable aspects of the event. Rather than providing direct answers to narrow questions about in-house legal practice, the Roundtable aimed to give attendees the tools to address these questions, and a level of strategic perspective with which to use them – following the Confucian maxim that to see is to remember but to be involved is to understand. One of the most powerful of these tools lies in drawing on the skills and experience of the delegates themselves; the cross-sector relationships that were built in the course of the two days will ensure that these skills and experience are continually available to the delegates.
Some measure of the success of the event was in how long it took delegates to leave after it formally ended. Those who did not have to rush off to catch planes lingered, as if to take a last draught of the atmosphere surrounding the two days. Business cards and warm farewells were exchanged and a number of delegates sought out Paul or Wise Owls for individual follow-up discussions.
Launching an event, and a community, like this requires considerable efforts from many people. In this instance the delegates themselves should take a bow, since it was their energy and willingness to share which made the event sing. But if it had not been for the vision and passion for the event of Graeme Wilson and his zeal in recruiting a full house of attendees, this could not have happened (nor would it have done without the very considerable behind the scenes organisational skills of Ann Peacocke); and the content would not have been nearly as rich and inspiring if it had not been for the unflagging enthusiasm which Paul Gilbert brought to his presenting and the carefully honed architecture (not to mention the creative mind behind the well-received case study) brought to the whole event by Lawrence Smith.
The intention behind the meeting was to hold an inaugural Roundtable conference; what was achieved included this and more, as it represented the beginning of new relationships, new ways of thinking, and a new community for the greatly talented in-house lawyers in Africa. We were delighted to receive feedback from one delegate even before we landed in the UK, saying it was the best investment they’d ever made in their career development and saying that all in-house lawyers should attend the event.
If in some small way my taking part had helped to promote this, it was a journey worth making; retiring to a comfortable place to relax under warm African skies, we dared to hope that we had launched something new, valuable and special.