Advise, don’t execute

LOD’s Tim Bratton puts the case for GCs as the biggest influencers of the future of the law. Take note if you want to be inside the tent

We regularly read that the legal profession is on the edge of revolution.  We are told that in one corner stand the revolutionists (Reinvent Law London is coming to a conference centre near you next month) and in the other corner is Big Law defending the status quo.

For those who missed it, George Beaton’s excellent blog post last Autumn set out both sides of the argument (belated kudos must go to Peter Kalis of K&L Gates for the most acerbic and amusing legal blog post comment of recent times, although it is admittedly a niche category).

Yet in these arguably self-interested debates about the future of our profession, there is one voice usually missing (sadly, this was generally true of the debate beneath George’s post too), which is that of the buyer of legal services.  The voice of the general counsel.

One might wonder why the GC’s voice is not heard more often, why GCs the world over are not wading into online debating arenas to cast quick judgment on whether New Law or Big Law is the future.  Can’t they make time in their diaries to discuss the future of the profession with keyboard warriors who haven’t practised as lawyers but still know better?  Don’t they care about the service they receive?  Don’t they care about the future of law? 

Of course they do.  Not only do they care, it is they who will do most to influence what it looks like.  However much of a pent up frenzy we might hear at Reinvent Law next month (I’ll be there but, perhaps paradoxically as a wannabe influencer of change in the profession, wondering whether any passionate calls for an instant reboot before we are all doomed go too far), it will generally not be those at Reinvent Law and conferences like it who will do most to influence the change they profess they want to see.

Whilst proponents of change might doubt that GCs can influence things from outside of the reformist tent, what perhaps they need to realise is that it is the GCs who are actually sitting comfortably in the tent whilst the reformist protests carry on unnoticed outside.  The only way of finding out what GCs are really thinking is to sit inside the tent with them.

Which happily is what many of us who are want to bring a fresh perspective to service delivery spend most of our time doing. 

And what are we hearing?

If there is a persistent theme it is a move towards what several GCs have defined to me as ‘an advisory and not execution strategy’.  To paraphrase, that means keeping the high level strategic advisory work in-house and outsourcing much of the day-to-day ‘doing’ of other work.  That ‘other work’ covers a wide range from complex, to routine, to repetitive.

Corporate boards demand their GCs to take on the role that the law firm client relationship partner once played and the opportunities for in-house lawyers to be (*cliché klaxon*) strategic advisers and not simply capable document turners (or ‘contract monkeys’ as one colleague once memorably referred to me and my in-house team) have never been greater.

Many in-house teams don’t want to be spending their time on what might broadly be referred to as ‘business as usual’ work, that’s not where they can make the most impact for their business.  And by the way, BAU doesn’t mean routine and commoditised work.  It generally means regular work-streams which have a complex twist requiring legal judgement somewhere along the way.

So where does this leave the role of external advisers?  If the high level advisory work that they once specialised in is now being done in-house, where do they now sit in the value chain?  Well, like any business in an industry in a state of flux, it’s time to pivot.  And pivoting might mean any number of things. 

The Magic Circle, quite rightly, stopped pretending that they want to carry out business as usual work years ago and pivoted towards big ticket ‘bet the farm’ transactions or litigation.  The mid-tier (define that as you will) has perhaps found pivoting more difficult – they don’t play in high value M&A or IPO land and realise that seeking to be an ‘all things to all people’ full-service law firm is not a sustainable strategy.  Happily, we now see a few firms looking at doing things differently.

Neither is New Law immune from the need to pivot.  With a self-interest disclaimer safely inserted at the beginning of this sentence, at LOD we’ve been required to respond to clients who don’t always need a full-time secondee through our On Site model, and instead want an alternative to outsourcing BAU work where there might be peaks and troughs in demand.  Our On Call service is being used by many clients to outsource the ‘doing’ instead of doing it in-house or sending it to law firms.  LOD lawyers are doing the ‘execution’ whilst the in-house team concentrates on the ‘advisory’.

The real harbinger’s of change are not the noisy reformists or even necessarily the GCs on the speaker circuit, but instead what one GC I recently had a coffee* with (*it may have been a beer) referred to as ‘the silent majority’.  Those in-house lawyers quietly going about their day jobs with little fanfare and tweaking their strategies to meet the needs of their business.  It is these silent revolutionaries who will really influence the future shape of our legal profession.

And it’s an exciting place to be inside the tent, listening, as GCs rip up the rule book and start from scratch.

Tim Bratton, practice development director, LOD