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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Leadership, lawyers & the British

Some of the world's most famous and effective leaders have been lawyers: Abraham Lincoln; Gandhi; Margaret Thatcher; Bill Clinton; Tony Blair; Thomas Moore; Thomas Cromwell. Take your pick. Even if they aren't all equally admired by history, all of them were lawyers. Barack Obama is just one in a long line.  

So, a question. Why is it that, when it comes to the world of business, lawyers spend a lot of time agonizing about their role and trying to articulate clearly how they add value, instead of getting on and leading their organizations? Lincoln wasn't dithering about his role when he delivered his address at Gettysburg, promising that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth"
.

These days, you could spend a whole year drifting from conference to conference listening to lawyers discussing the role of lawyers in the commercial setting. Meanwhile, in-housers smugly complain about out-housers refusing to address "commercial issues". All of this misses the point.  


After spending a lot of time working with lawyers around the world, I've concluded that all this agonizing is most pronounced in the UK. So, maybe we're trying to answer the wrong question. Maybe, the truth is that British lawyers are not anxious about their role in business because they're lawyers, but because they're British.


Does anyone in Britain really understand business anymore? We were once the world's most effective country when it came
 to making money. Nowadays, we can't even afford fighters for our aircraft carriers and you have to wonder if we've lost the urge.  

Think of the coverage of business in the mainstream UK media. In 2001, Jeff 
Randall famously became the corporation's first business editor, appointed by Greg Dyke, then BBC director-general, after the BBC failed to cover the Vodafone bid for Mannesmann, the largest takeover that Europe had ever seen. They simply missed it.

In those days, what passed for business coverage was a junior reporter standing outside Longbridge talking about job losses in the car industry. 
Arguably now, they still have the same problem. It's a senior reporter standing outside a bank. The story is the banks and nothing but the banks. You'd think nobody was employed in any other industry.

In the film Casino Royale, during a high-stakes game of cards, Felix Leiter, the American CIA agent, says to James Bond: "
Listen, I'm bleeding chips. I'm not going to last much longer. You have a better chance. I'll stake you. I'm saying I'll give you the money to keep going. Just one thing: you pull it off, the CIA bring him in."  Bond replies "What about the winnings?". To which Leiter says "Does it look like we need the money?" It's a cheap laugh, but only because the Yanks have the money and we don't.  

Does British business look a little limp to you? Is the performance from BP really the best we can do?


Extending the card game metaphor, I ought to declare my hand. I'm a British lawyer. 
So, here's a challenge for every angst ridden British lawyer. Are you anxious about your role? Are you a trusted business partner? Is your CEO listening to you? If not, is that because you're a lawyer or because you're just ... too British?

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Those of you thinking I'm being deliberately controversial to launch a blog are right. But, to make a more serious point, next time I'm going to consider one of the structural problems with Legal in a lot of British companies. The subject will be "If your GC reports to the CFO, your company doesn't understand what Legal does."

1 comment:

  1. A good article, I have not come across this analysis before, but think there is a lot of truth in it. EG

    ReplyDelete