The Leader column

Anyway, so there we all were at The Lawyer Monte Carlo (you know, the premier networking event in the legal calendar). At one of the industry sessions, a group of heavyweight in-house lawyers were talking to private practice specialists. But one partner seemed uncomfortable among all the conversational spontaneity. Sandwiched between two telecoms giants, the hapless lawyer could only intone: "Yes, we do e-commerce. E-commerce, that's what we do. We do e-commerce."

This rigidity is not uncommon. There seems to be a growing number of private practice lawyers in the grip of the faintly autistic assumption that business life can be reduced to a flow diagram. Who has not sat through management and marketing presentations with the inevitable pictorial representation of the client relationship? (Most of these involve the dead hand of Powerpoint; bizarre that a device apparently calculated to force an audience not to look at a speaker has become so popular on the conference circuit, but there you are.)

The most memorably meaningless diagram of late was one which involved four boxes in a diamond shape. This was a Good Thing. But when those boxes were moved to create a bow tie, it was a Bad Thing. Something to do with the relationship between in-house and private practice lawyers, apparently.

Most of these cave paintings can be divided into several types: there's the graphs with dubious axes; a bunch of circles, with those echoes of maths lessons spent unravelling Venn diagrams; and then the series of interlinked boxes, ostensibly to plot reporting lines. On the face of it, that might seem an uncontroversial diagram, were it not for the inevitable cop-out of the dotted line, usually signifying the tax partner who doesn't want to report to anyone.

What was clear from The Lawyer Monte Carlo was that in-house lawyers simply want to talk. They want to talk to each other, but they also want to exchange ideas with those in private practice about their own industry. After all, what's the best way of learning a language? Is it parroting from a phrase book? No, it's about learning to listen. All those lessons in delivery of service are entirely wasted if private practice lawyers don't take the trouble – and here's the radical bit – to get into a conversation first.

Law is a business, but the product is people. This matrix madness must stop. Lawyers of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your slides.