If only lawyers who lead could bill leadership by the hour…



Economist Events

16th. Annual GC Summit


7th. November 2019

Ciarán Fenton

Leadership consultant


Focus and productivity: what are the key methods for focusing, and how can they increase your productivity?


Thank you to The Economist Events team for inviting me to speak this morning at their 16th. Annual GC Summit 2019.


They have set me a challenging topic.


It’s challenging because, whatever flaws lawyers are meant to have according to academic research, being unproductive isn’t one of them.


Over 15 years, I have worked with scores of lawyers – in-house and out: GCs, DGCs, Heads of Legal and their teams.


I’ve worked with managing partners, equity partners and partners in private practice.


I’ve even worked with barristers: silks, senior juniors, juniors and, even baby silks!


This pecking order alone suggests that lawyers don’t muck about when it comes to creating systems that ensure that, if you want to rise to the top, you have to work very hard indeed, and productively.


So while I have heard individual lawyers described as having this strength or that weakness never have I heard a lawyer described as “unproductive” in the realm of black letter law.


But leadership is an entirely different matter.


To be productive as a GC, you must know how to lead – assuming of course that you have a team to lead. I’m aware that many GCs have no teams. I’m referring to those that do.


Most in-house lawyers started off in private practice. Leadership is not valued in private practice because it’s not billable.


If only lawyers who lead could bill leadership by the hour they would be amongst the most effective senior executives in the business world.


Some years ago I was won a pitch to facilitate a three-day annual global legal leadership conference – about one hundred in-house lawyer-leaders drawn from a large legal function in a multi-national corporation.


It was a big opportunity for me. I wanted to make a good impression.


But on the morning of the second day of the conference after a sleepless night I announced that I had had a failure of courage the previous day – perhaps subconsciously fearful that I might not get another mandate – I announced that I should have called out the fact that I felt there was no energy whatsoever in the room for leadership, only for risk. There was an uneasy silence.


I asked for a show of hands from those who would admit that my impression that leadership was not top of mind at this, er, leadership conference was in fact correct.


To my great relief, most put up their hands. This was not an isolated incident.

So, what are the key methods of focusing as a GC and how can those methods help increase their productivity?


I propose one method and three tools that GCs can test for themselves if they haven’t already, to meet this need.


The core method I recommend is to write themselves a skeleton argument, as it were, to prove to their satisfaction the hypothesis that improving significantly their leadership capability – a combination of art and science – will, in fact, make them feel more successful and more capable as GCs.


The keyword in the method is “feel”. The skeleton argument starts as an intellectual process and ends as an emotional one.


GCs are, of course aware, intellectually, of the value of leadership training and programmes.


But they don’t feel as deeply connected emotionally to the art and science of leadership as they do, for example, to the art and science of litigation.


If perhaps they approached the skeleton argument as an exercise in proving or not that there was a significant gap in their legal education, they might come to see this exercise as a rewiring of their legal minds.



Even today there is no mandatory leadership module in law degrees, the GDL or LPC. The regulator doesn’t demand it because I suspect, the regulator doesn’t value leadership courses as highly as other courses in legal training, notwithstanding the fact that a large number of lawyers become leaders.


Then I suggest they test for themselves the three main components of leadership:


  1. Creating an environment in which the people they lead, thrive.
  2. Growing the legal function. By growing I mean making it increasingly relevant.
  3. Pleasing stakeholders. By stakeholders, I mean all of them, not just the CEO.


Taking these in turn:




Creating an environment in which the people they lead thrive is productive behaviour and means spending time getting to know what motivates the people they lead. This varies from person to person.


As a test, GCs could list the psychological motivators of each of their direct reports and track how each direct report responds to the GC’s efforts at creating an environment in which those motivators were triggered.


At the end of the trial period, the GC would either be convinced of the approach if it worked or might need to look at raising their EQ if it didn’t work. Either way, the GC controls the tool and their own learning.




Growing the legal function is about focus. By growing, I mean making it increasingly relevant. There is only one way to make a legal function relevant, and that is to test its connection with business strategy, constantly.


The best tool to make Legal relevant is a business plan.


A business plan which sets out and fully costs a legal function’s relationship with delivering business strategy can’t fail unless of course, the GC doesn’t understand the business strategy or the business doesn’t understand legal strategy.


In respect of the latter and in my experience, the single biggest contributor to unproductive GCs is their failure to tell, rather than ask, the business what it needs in terms of legal counsel and process.


The most unproductive GCs are those who are hounded by their business. There are many recorded cases of these and far more unrecorded.




Pleasing stakeholders. By stakeholders, I mean all of them, not just the CEO.


The GC’s client is the board. Much has been written on this issue not least regarding the role of IHLs addressed in detail in Professor Stephen Mayson’s recently published interim report on his Independent Review of Legal Services Regulation S 5.8 the most arresting quote from which is where he states “in-house lawyers have to be able to sound alarm bells without the chilling effect of potential reprisal”.


He goes on to say in respect of in-house lawyers that “the public interest in effective and fearless legal representation is engaged in much the same way as it is with private practice”.


In that sentence, surely is a large part of what it means to be a productive GC: effective and fearless legal representation.


Perhaps the best focus and productivity tool available to GCs is to remember that they are Officers of the Court and not to wince, as some do when reminded of it.



Finally, at a macro level, there is an opportunity for GCs to contribute productively to the changing nature of how trading relationships are managed.



There is growing movement towards balancing shareholder value with ESG factors – environment, society and governance and it is in the area of business contracts that trading relationships receive their expression.



Earlier this week I spoke at the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management Americas IACCM Conference in Phoenix, Arizona about the impact of the 181 signatories of the Business Roundtable statement on the purpose of the corporation and other developments in ESG behaviour on boards and had an opportunity to hear the views of others on these developments.



Sally Guyer, the CEO of IACCM said in her opening remarks at the conference that “in an era where purpose has to come above shareholder value, where people want integrity…we see that it’s contracting that’s at the heart of these changes.”



And where there are contracts, there are lawyers and if GCs want to be productive at a macro level they should engage deeply in the debate around how contracting is changing to reflect new behaviour in trading relationships which increasingly have an ESG component.



If GCs want to be more focused and productive, they might consider first reframing their purpose in a changing world.


If they don’t, they will surely lose out.


If they do they will be at the heart of positive change.


And that’s where society wants its lawyers to be.


Thank you.




























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