Tuesday, 11 January 2011

How CEOs assess the performance of their lawyers; or Why it's good to say thanks for the coffee

Let's ignore the irony that this post about assessment of lawyers' performance is written by a lawyer shall we? Yes?  Good.
Last week I attended the Pinsent Masons Atlas Retreat (#pmar).  The Chatham House rule prevents me from sourcing the origin of this post, who was an ex-lawyer, ex-chair of board, ex-company director, ex-superhero etc.  Let's call him in a pedantic lawyer defined term kind of way, "the Speaker".  The Speaker was here, so we thought, to talk about how CEOs assess the performance of their lawyers.
However, he started thus: "Most boards of directors have extreme difficulty understanding whether they are getting good legal advice."
This statement is a discussion point in itself and open to challenge (certainly I don't think it is true of the board at our shop, but you might think I would say that wouldn't I, hi all if you have tuned in).  But for the purposes of this post, let's assume the statement is true.
The purpose behind the Speaker's comment was not to make the point that directors are unintelligent.  It was to make the point that for lawyers to stand out, to differentiate themselves, it is not enough to articulate the law because many clients (whether CEOs or not) may not know whether or not what we tell them is accurate. 
Hold that thought about differentiation and picture this scene (a real life anecdote that our Speaker bestowed on us): the CEO of an airline is flying back from a business trip on one of the company's aeroplanes.  A stewardess on the flight falls sick and is unable to carry out her duties.  The CEO offers his services to the rest of the cabin crew, to do what he can to help, even if it is just to clear up the rubbish.  Imagine the effect this small gesture had on the perception of the CEO the cabin crew held.  And of the staff those cabin crew told the story to.  And of the staff those staff told the story to.  Etcetera.
And picture this scene (another real life anecdote a GC told me last week): the office of a well known magazine publisher.  A Christmas charity raffle for staff.   Bing's "White Christmas" playing in the background as the snow falls against the windows of the office (okay, I made that bit up for colour). The raffle prizes are all sourced from the gifts received by the CEO during the year from suppliers, business partners etc.
Go back to the thought I asked you to hold earlier about differentiation.  The point of these anecdotes?  The actions taken by the CEOs heavily influenced the perception of them by their staff.
It's the age old clich√©.  That actions speak louder than words.  Which was the Speaker's point - a lawyer's ability to influence the perception their clients hold of them extends well beyond their ability to articulate the law.
As lawyers, of course we know that our value is not measured simply in terms of our ability to articulate the law.  We tend to seek to differentiate ourselves by our espousing our ability to apply the law in context, by our ability to "be commercial" or pragmatic.  But the differentiator the Speaker focused on, and which I am trying to encourage us to think about, is more subtle than that.
This is about the small things.  How do we interact with people?
How do you interact with the post room at work?  Do you say thank you to the person in the canteen who sells you coffee?  Or hello to the cleaner who empties the office bins each evening?  Simple things, but things that may influence what people think of us, and therefore what clients think of us as people and also as lawyers.  Frankly, are we normal human beings or are we sitting in an ivory tower practising law in cloud cuckoo city?
The Speaker argued that lawyers are still regarded by many as insulated from the real world.  Hence the need for us to find subtler and more refined signals to which clients are receptive.  Now, maybe the post/coffee/bin examples above are a bit ham fisted, overly "right-on" and even patronising.  But as caricatured examples they make a point.
The Speaker drew our attention to the website of Axiom Legal, a kind of virtual law-firm, pointing out how the Axiom website includes video profiles of some of their lawyers which include a short voxpop on their legal background but also their real-life background.  Message: we're lawyers, but we're human too, you might like working with us.  I just checked it out now, and the homepage strapline is “Lawyers you like”.
One of my key principles practising law and one that is instilled in the FT's legal team is  ‘Approachability’.  Everyone in the team should be approachable by everyone in the business.  It's a hell of a business development tool.  And how do we make ourselves approachable?  Walk the floors.  Meet our non-legal colleagues where they sit, not where the lawyers sit.  Water cooler advice.  Open plan environment.  Attitude (no high and mighty).  Smiley happy lawyers (usually).  Yes, approachability can go too far like the client who tried to drag one of the team out of the toilet just before Christmas to provide some advice, but I digress.
There's not much rocket science in here is there?  And if I was reading this I might even be tempted to nod knowingly and think "yep, I already do that", move on, thanks for teaching egg sucking, Unfollow, do not pass go.  But it's always worth a sanity check, isn't it?
So a bit like the session at #pmac, this blog post has not done exactly what it said it would do on the tin.  It hasn't told you exactly how CEOs measure the performance of lawyers.  But I hope that it has reminded you, as the Speaker did me, how the perception of clients, whether it is the CEO or someone else, can be influenced by the smallest things.  In today's competitive environment, whether practising in-house or out-house, the smallest things can bring us the defining margins.
Small editorial disclaimer: those of you who take the trouble to click-through to the Axiom website may note that their homepage makes mention of a recent FT award that Axiom won.  I’m not involved in the award-giving gig, just in case the combination of my mentioning Axiom and the FT award looks a little too cosy for comfort.

3 comments:

  1. Great post. I think your policy of being out amongst the rest of the business is totally right. It is common sense but how many people actually bother to do it, even when they know they should. I think it applies equally to all support services to a business - accountants, HR, IT and even more so to the senior management. Although the managers of these teams need to allow the time, and give the leadership, for their people to be out walking the floors or it just never happens. All to easy to tap out an e-mail.

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