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The lexicon of inefficiency

Paul Gilbert argues that in-house counsel’s focus on artisan improvisation is out of touch with modern business realities.

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It is not easy to be an in-house lawyer. Thank goodness, however, because if it was why on earth would any business want to employ a lawyer? In fact, why would any lawyer go to the trouble of that expensive and gruelling training and working hours that risk burnout; then, just when they reach the point they can capitalise on their powers, decide to hop into a featherbed of routine, low-risk work that is more ‘admin’ than law? Surely the job being difficult is part of the attraction? Difficulty is also some justification for lawyers to be among the most expensive bodies on the payroll.

But, in truth, it is also more difficult than it needs to be because too many lawyers see complexity when there is just inefficiency. I know we do not live in a perfect world, we are all inefficient to a point; but if an in-house lawyer is both inefficient and searching for vainglorious validation of their plight then my sympathy will be tempered. So let’s knock down some of the implausible nonsense that gets trotted out when lawyers gather for a group hug (or as it is more commonly known – a conference).

  • ‘It is impossible to measure judgement’ – which means that the highly individual mix of expertise, experience and time served can appear to look like they make it up as they go along. Generally this is OK, because they know what they are doing, but it is also the case that apart from their own (often inaccessible) emails there will be no way to judge the quality of their work or its contribution.
  • ‘This matter is ongoing’ – which means that the lawyer is currently too busy to do anything with it. The reason they are too busy is that they believe they cannot get the resources they need. They argue that they are really good at their job (evidenced by how busy they are) but deadlines are meaningless (unless it comes from the executive suite). All they can do is try to put out fires. If they had their way the meaningless monthly reporting of work in progress would also stop. One must also never suggest the answer is to ‘prioritise’ or to create ‘tools’. If they had time to do that they would not have loads of ‘ongoing’ matters.
  • ‘I want my law firms to come up with innovative pricing’ – which means that for the last 20 years every conference has had this as a theme. So, by now, surely someone somewhere has done it! However, because solutions are rarely easy to implement they will rationalise that their work is different, go to the law firms they have used before and trust them. After all, trust is everything when it is impossible to measure judgement. By the way, procurement colleagues are a pain in the arse.
  • ‘I am a businessman as well as a lawyer’ – which means that being university-educated, professionally-qualified and managing important things is equivalent to running a business. The fact that they have never sold a thing, invented anything or managed their own profit and loss does not preclude the assertion of being a businessman. Invariably they do not want to run a business either, because they might lose the ‘sharpness’ of their legal skills and, as we all know, you cannot measure judgement.
  • ‘I want to be seen as the trusted adviser’ – which means? Not much. They will most likely be the only person in their business to invent such a phrase and there is no definition for it because this is the essence of judgement and, as we all know, it is impossible to measure judgement. The fact that they aspire to be something that cannot be measured is not an indicator of value, but all that is left to claim when real value has been attributed to the doers.

In-house lawyers today are a very significant part of the entire UK legal profession. They are without any doubt intelligent, hard-working, honest and good company; but like elders of a lost tribe on a remote island, the collective wisdom of the ages will not be enough to succeed in the maddeningly quick, temporary and brutalising environments in which many work today. Time therefore to get a grip of all that talent and to make a contribution that can be seen, measured and valued by people who may have smaller brains, but who undoubtedly have proper jobs.

Paul Gilbert is chief executive of LBC Wise Counsel