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What I now know: Keith Ruddock, recently retired general counsel, the Weir Group

Keith Ruddock retired at the end of 2015 after an in-house career that spanned over 23 years – first at Shell, and then at global engineering company The Weir Group. GC collects his reflections for success in the in-house role.

Keith Ruddock, formerly GC, THE WEIR GROUP

Catherine Wycherley

Editor and features writer

Email Catherine

Moving in-house

When I left private practice in 1992 there was a misconception that moving in-house was somehow a second division role, or an area where people could go for a change of lifestyle. An interesting thing I found was that I was working every bit as hard as when I was in private practice, but actually I resented it less because I could clearly see the purpose and was not being driven by billable hours targets or client retention.

Technology versus technical skills

Technology brings so many benefits, but I sometimes wonder: do we occasionally lose sight of the fundamentals of our legal training and our advice? If you were to set a new, or even a not-so-new, lawyer the challenge of drafting an agreement from scratch, without reference to a precedent, could they do that today? I’ve come across some very longstanding, significant agreements that were drafted perhaps in the 1960s, the 1940s, or even the 1930s, that may have only run to nine or ten pages, but were beautifully crafted and they still work perfectly. There are moves towards more commoditisation of legal advice and, in a way, as a profession we are playing into that, because we are using precedents so much that it’s almost as though the non-legal world asks: couldn’t anyone just fill in the blanks? I think it’s sometimes worth stepping back and asking: have we moved too far in that direction and perhaps lost some of those specific skills? Do we really think through what we are saying or do we focus on speed of document turnaround instead?

Winning the trust of the business

Establish that relationship of trust with your client where they feel that you are absolutely alongside them. It’s very rarely enough to just say to a client or business colleague: ‘You simply can’t do this’. Very often the answer is: ‘You can’t do it this way, but here’s a way that I think will achieve the same outcome that you should try.’ If you’ve built up a level of trust, on those occasions where you do have to say no, that will be respected and accepted much more than being seen as always taking the conservative and arguably easy option of just saying no.

I sometimes think that lawyers can be the most ‘human’ people in the room. Business people can be very project-focused and results-oriented, whereas lawyers are very good at taking the wider perspective and expressing their opinions, because that’s their training. They don’t just accept authority and defer to someone who’s more senior for the sake of it.

Numerical value

I wish I had, at an early stage, taken some sort of financial course because so much of your credibility and standing in a business environment comes from understanding the numbers and how they operate. Over time you build that knowledge up, but I do think it would have been much more effective to have had that from the outset, because it gives you a lot more confidence. Lawyers are too quick to put themselves down when it comes to lack of familiarity with numbers. We should be a lot more prepared to take that on and engage with greater assurance.

Don’t sell yourself short

A lot of a lawyer’s training is to advise and then step back. When you’re in-house, you don’t have the luxury of stepping back. As a general counsel, you’re living with your decisions day to day.

Lawyers sometimes feel a bit reticent about contributing from a business perspective, but my experience is that they have a lot to bring and can sometimes ask the question that people in the business context are too embarrassed to ask. You often find that around the table people are no more advanced than you are in terms of their understanding of an issue, so never be afraid to ask what seems to be the stupid question, because it can be right on point. If you feel that something obvious is being missed, then absolutely bring it up.

Lawyers are very good at seeing the wider context. Nowadays, when companies and businesses have to answer to so many stakeholders to be trusted by society, I think that lawyers have a crucially important role, because in many respects they’re much more in touch with what drives society.

Most general counsel are not interested in moving into purely business or management roles. What that means at the board table or in the senior management discussions is that very often you can contribute without a political agenda, because you’re not looking to position yourself to take someone else’s job. That’s actually very powerful because it means that you are trusted, your advice is unbiased, and you’re truly objective.

Lawyers often build up skills in areas that other business people only touch on occasionally. Negotiation, drafting, project management, crisis situations, and reputational issues – these are things that lawyers come across all the time, especially in-house. Very often the main focus of expertise in a company in those areas can be in the legal function. In some companies, other functions do a better job of positioning themselves politically within the business and creating a higher profile, whereas the legal department has so much to offer. We are surprisingly shy as a community in putting ourselves forward and celebrating our achievements.

If an opportunity arises, don’t be afraid to take it on. If somebody more senior approaches you and says, ‘we think you should take on this position’, don’t overanalyse it. They have already made the determination that they think you’re ready for it and that you can do it. So my advice would almost always be to trust their judgement and go with it.

‘When you’re in-house, you don’t have the luxury of stepping back. As a general counsel, you’re living with your decisions day to day.’

People management

However busy you are in your role, always try to make time for people, because it’s a great investment. Usually if someone has come to see you it’s for a reason, and it may take some time to tease that out. I think what you also develop is an instinct for when you need to get involved directly in a matter. A general rule of thumb is that if there’s something that is worrying you, the board or the CEO, then you probably need to be personally involved or at least be aware of what is happening. But generally I think that most lawyers perform better when they feel they’re being given the freedom to get on and do their job, but also know they can come and get that extra advice and input if necessary.

Being honest with people is not always welcome, but the Dutch have a saying: ‘kind doctors make for bad wounds’. There are times when not being as open or explicit as you could be in terms of performance feedback is not doing the person any good, and it’s probably not doing the organisation any good. That doesn’t mean you should be brutal about it, but there’s a way you can address those issues that shows respect and, in turn, you will get respect for that. If you’ve got a difficult message, then be open about that and also explain the context.

Personal development

I think it’s very tempting to take on a persona that you feel is necessary for the role, but being authentic carries huge impact; people respond to that and they respect it. If you try and create a false image in your work environment, all that does is create a stress on you and, over time, you can’t really sustain that. Obviously, as you get more experienced you develop skills, and you will develop techniques, which is perfectly legitimate. But, fundamentally, be yourself and never lose the knowledge of who you are.

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