Last Tuesday at the ACC Europe Conference in Rome I facilitated a session whose title, set by the organisers, was: “Disruptive change – Strategic agility in 2016 and beyond”. In the programme note they added:
“As the legal business world experiences disruptive change, are in-house lawyers transforming and adapting or being left behind? So many in-house lawyers are so busy with the day-to-day business that they do not notice the changes going on around them.”
I felt there were three notable outcomes from the session:
- Most delegates felt that massive disruption is not imminent, rather that change is incremental
- A small few – including me – warned of the dangers of complacency
- One GC suggested and that in-house counsel should “own” the disruption rather than be “done to” and this received a positive response
But I noticed that no one was rushing forward to lead the revolutionaries and disruptors with lighted torches into the streets of Rome. And a few GCs said to me after the session that they were disappointed that there were not more stories of “strategic agility” from delegates. But how can in-house counsel demonstrate strategic agility when their purpose is rarely hammered out and agreed with “the business”? You can’t have a shared strategy without shared purpose. I’ve addressed this issue previously in a pamphlet about the GC-CEO relationship.
My challenge to delegates was that it’s impossible for them to be strategically agile when they persist in delivering 10 things for 7 dollars, when 10 things cost 10 dollars. I understand their dilemma: they are often tolerated rather than loved, invariably under funded, and their career management systems are woeful. Many get stuck beneath a GC who won’t be moving for a long time. And, sadly, there’s little respect for the expert in the hierarchy. The only way up is to lead and many in-house counsel have no energy for leadership. It wasn’t in their training. So many great lawyers with no leadership training or real interest in leadership get to the top. No wonder there’s little strategic agility.
And to be fair to “the business” some in-house counsel are guilty of complacency. But they have a lot to be complacent about. They’re not badly paid, can spend rather than sell, and they command respect, especially when talking about people going to prison. Moreover, disruption is all hooey to them. They can’t taste it; they can’t feel it; they can’t see it. And they’re right, the barbarians are not at the gates – yet. I have written about this elsewhere in a piece called Big Bang? What Big Bang? Am I Deaf?
The purpose of the session was to ensure that delegates left it with a deeper understanding of the truth behind the hype around disruption; how it might affect the function generally and what, if anything, they as individuals should do about it. I decided it was appropriate that a session on disruption should have a disruptive format and so I turned the panel into the audience and the audience was the panel. The audience of three acted as a sort of Greek Chorus. They observed, relaxed and listened and made occasional comments. They did a great job. The audience cum panel did all the work. They had one long breakout session at their tables to address the issues and then there was a general debate.
Next year’s conference is in Portugal and I wonder what will have changed. Not much has changed since the last conference in Munich last year. And unless there’s a “Ryanair moment” in legal services in the next year I doubt if next year’s conference will be any different. Not that cost is the only issue. I feel that the purpose of the Legal function itself is up for debate as a disruptive issue especially around being champions of ethics. But my experience is that many lawyers have even less energy for ethics than they do for leadership. Nevertheless, there are a few Michael O’Learys working quietly in the wings and when they strike I suspect, as happened to British Airways, in-house counsel will be stopped in their tracks and will have no option but to change. Right now the pain isn’t great enough. If only they could anticipate the pain they might act and as that GC said, “own the disruption”.