Like a lot of GCs and purveyors of legal services, I’ve had arguably more than my fair share of attending in-house corporate counsel forums, conferences, roundtables and even grandly named summits. 

It’s easy to get battle-weary of these when one hears the regular call to arms to ‘be more commercial’, ‘get closer to the business’ and the favourite moniker, ‘get a seat at the table’ (the one closest to the lunch buffet is my favourite, not sure if that’s what they mean though).

Which is why it was refreshing last week at The Lawyer’s ‘In-House Counsel as Business Partner’ event to hear the views of one CEO and one CAO (Chief Administrative Officer if you were wondering, which I don’t think is a case of job title inflation for the Head of Stationery) of what they want from GCs.

Tim Bratton

Step forward Nicola Shaw, CEO of HS1, and Tom Kilroy, CAO/Chief of Staff at Misys.

The advice from both was succinct, as perhaps you’d expect from people operating at the C-Suite.

The traits Nicola looks for in her GCs are: commerciality; stubbornness; a willingness to challenge; someone who’ll help raise the company profile; a pro-active tendency; can transition quickly across varied issues; who wants to help run the business; and, most controversially, a GC who’d be “fun” to work with.  Who knew…

Tom is the rare UK example of a GC turned CEO now turned CAO.  He’s passionate about the need for lawyers to get financially literate.  Tom was once kind enough to visit my old shop at the FT and talk to our team about that.

He’s got a new slide deck now though.

First up, a slide of Jesus (I considered a link to a picture, decided it superfluous), highlighting that 8 per cent of his disciples betrayed him.  The point of the slide?  The figure is meaningless without context.  How many disciples did he have?  Rhetorical question.  Context is everything with numbers (as with law, I guess).

Then a video of President Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech.  Tucked in there, towards the end, is a lot of boring stuff about how much it was going to cost.  Even great visionaries care about numbers.

Tom reminded us that this month’s numbers or last month’s are useless without context.  Look at the same month last year, compare with the same month five years ago.  What picture is being painted?  What are the trends?  Just don’t ask your Financial Controller to dig out last century’s balance sheets, or you’ll be hated apparently.

And he rounded off with a picture of everyone’s (well, everyone except Andy Murray) favourite tennis player, Roger Federer.  With the reminder that even Rodge needs to practise 2 hours a day just to stand still.  Meaning you don’t understand those numbers unless you spend court time reading them.  And reading some more.

Tom’s view is that since business talks the language of numbers, GCs, indeed all in-house lawyers, need to be conversant in it too.  No excuses.  He admitted numbers can be boring, but essentially the message is, get bored but get literate.  Tough but sage advice.

My earlier conference flippancy was of course tongue in cheek, the many experienced GCs at IHCBP15 were, as the in-house community usually is, generous in sharing best practice and genuine in their wish to ensure their teams are doing the best job possible.  But this blog post is not about lawyers telling other lawyers how to be a good lawyer.  It’s about what the business wants, what the C-Suite demands.  We heard it from the horse’s mouth.

Which is someone stubborn with a GSOH who loves spending time with an Excel spreadsheet.  Like many lawyers, I must have missed that particular class at law school.

Tim Bratton is practice development director at Lawyers On Demand and former GC of the FT. @legalbrat