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Lawyers could save the world, mirabile dictu...


Female lawyers: please imagine this image as a female "super lawyer"


Last week I facilitated a workshop involving over thirty in-house counsel from a large global corporate business. They were no different from any group I have encountered over the last ten years.


At one point I said, more or less what I always say: " You all realise, I'm sure, that you could be key players in enabling better decision-making in organisations across the globe and potentially save them and the world from self-inflicted economic and other harm and even prevent another global crash.”


They looked at me blankly. One said, brusquely: "We don't do compliance. That's a separate department".


T'was as if I were speaking Martian. This was not an unusual response. I've tried variations of this statement with different groups of lawyers with virtually the same reaction, except from the a-typical lawyers.


A-typical lawyers are lawyers who exhibit the following three characteristics.


- they are scarily bright, in IQ terms AND


- they have one major fault-line in EQ terms, and they know it even if they don’t admit it AND


- they are chomping at the bit "to break the mould" in how legal services are delivered


Most groups of lawyers contain a small number of a-typical lawyers, say ten per cent, initially cool if not hostile but, as workshops progress I usually notice in them a grudging acceptance, nay excitement, that there is a third way to run legal services.


These groups reflect the statistically proven (I'm told) change ratio: 10% stars, 20% resistors, 70% on the fence. As explained to me many years ago by an excellent change consultant, the best approach is to celebrate the stars, try to ignore the resistors and woo the fence sitters.


Once I persuade lawyers that conduct risk, pre-decision, is not a compliance matter but a risk register matter, they are half way towards accepting that they have more power than they wield.


Halfway, because the other half concerns matters about which they feel deeply uncomfortable: behaviour and feelings. Talking about behaviour and feelings makes many lawyers, except the most a-typical, very twitchy indeed.


That’s because these matters are, as one GC told me as he made a wonderful downward-mouth emoji-like disgust face, “a bit touchy-feely”. Another deemed them “esoteric”, with suitably arched eyebrows. A third said he "struggled" with my "emotive" language. Emotive is deemed to be synonymous with irrational.


That is until you witness these lawyers become angry over a "matter" or "behaviours". Note the "s". Hell hath no fury as a lawyer riled. However, these aren't feelings, you understand?They are "appropriate responses."


Law School cauterised the feelings of many lawyers or what was left of them after, in some cases, less than emotionally nourishing formative years. Why do lawyers need feelings when all they need to do is to crunch the facts and apply the law?


The problem is that law schools never made provision for the fact that conduct risk would become one of the top three risks in every organisation in the 21st Century.


Pick any one of the front page corporate traumas over the last ten years, and you will find a conduct related “risk event” as its cause. And what's happening on the front pages is only a fraction of what is going on out of sight.


So we have a generation of in-house counsel trained to subjugate emotion yet grappling with conduct risks which can only be evaluated in emotional terms.


That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is no obsessive a convert than a lawyer. Once they decide - and Lord can it take an age for them to do so - they are relentless.


So, my challenge to the profession is to reframe its purpose as enablers of better decision-making on boards and in teams. If they embraced this with the enthusiasm for which they are renowned, then they will save us all from ruin.


After all, are lawyers not meant to be the protectors of our democracy, as Officers of the Court? Moreover, what better way to protect freedom than to keep the businesses, on which we all rely for work, sustainable?


Ciarán Fenton






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