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The problem with conscientious lawyers

Author: Tim Bratton |

01 Oct 2012 | 12:29

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Clients, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Our legal department is always busy (have you ever met a lawyer who isn’t busy? As a profession we’ve trademarked (new verb) 'Always Busy' as a tag line), but we’ve recently had a spike, which has pushed us from 'busy and just about treading water whilst kicking fast' to 'busy and looking for the life raft'.

So, what’s to do?

One, panic. Then what?

Two, look at budget remaining for year for external counsel. Go back to One.

Three, get strategic.

For getting strategic is what general counsel are supposed to do at times of extreme busyness. We are supposed to do a number of things.

Prioritise – which doesn’t mean re-writing a To Do list for one hour a day (anyone else do that?), but brutally prioritise – as in “Dear Client, you could probably do this piece of work yourself if you turned your mind to it, but if you’re not willing to do that then we’ll check back in with you in three weeks to see if it still needs doing.”

Kill work – which means there is certain work flooding into the department that (say this quietly in case we dispel the mystique of the profession) *does not need looking at by a lawyer* and we should tell clients that.

Re-organise – you know, buy Susskind’s latest, chuck a grid up on the whiteboard, and before you know it the GC has been reverse-TUPE’d into a magic circle firm and the in-house team is now 500-strong, operates out of a call centre somewhere in what we used to call the third world and even they are considering outsourcing to an LPO provider to find a better deal.

Process-ise (that’s not really an 'ise' but didn’t want to spoil the flow) – put all of the agreements flooding into the department into an online cement mixer which will very quickly turn them into AI-based templates that even the guy that waters the office plants can turn into a complex share purchase agreement just by thinking what he would like to appear in the clauses with blanks. Simples. A sales person can sell you this product, I know because they call me to tell me.

It’s very easy this general counsel gig you know. I’d probably have cracked all of the above by now, if it wasn’t for one thing. Which is lawyers.

Lawyers eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live with them.

The problem with lawyers is their conscience. More precisely, their conscientiousness. Because as fast as the work comes in, we develop our black humour security blanket, and tend to rise to the challenge. Yes, we moan, yes we cajole, yes we huff (and puff), yes we put the phone down and roll our eyes. But we crack on and do what needs to be done to get through the spike.

Because as a profession, we are conscientious. It is a kind of character defect we inherit at birth that makes us willing to solve other people’s problems (even when the other people sometimes don’t give us much input into the solution). Well, who wouldn’t want to spend their spare time doing that? Those departments that get to leave work at 5.30pm - hell are they missing out on the fun stuff that happens after hours!

And then, without anyone noticing, the spike eases and suddenly we’ve discarded the life raft and are back to treading water madly (but we think serenely). Problem solved, phew glad that’s over, let’s count all the thankyou emails from the clients we just got (one, two... erm, stop there).

All good once the spike is over?

No. Because by going into conscientious overdrive, we solve a short-term problem at the risk of failing to deal with or even see the long-term one. I would love to write more about solving this stuff. But unfortunately I have some urgent work to do so can’t waste more time thinking about the bigger picture.

Tim Bratton is general counsel of the Financial Times and blogs at thelegalbratblawg. Click here to follow Tim on Twitter.

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