Time is the most valuable asset at your disporal. Use it wisely.

The Legal 500’s publishing director, David Burgess, considers the value of taking time out to listen and engage with colleagues in the legal industry.

Over the past year, I have been drawn back to a poem that I first heard when I was very young, namely that of Leisure, by the Welsh poet W.H. Davies. A short piece, it ends with:

A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.

Taking a step back from the frantic, full-on day-to-day demands of the legal industry is incredibly hard to do. But it can be the most rewarding, and fulfilling. Since I started to try and put this into practice, I have thought about the people I have met in the industry and tried to discover whether they have the same philosophy or if they are totally engrossed in the business of law. Some of the latter individuals are fascinating, passionately engaged in the subject, clearly dedicated to what they do. But I find the conversations often colder, and harder to maintain. They are not as interesting, simply because they often lack that fundamental skill – emotional intelligence.

Having empathy with your clients and your colleagues, trying to understand what makes them tick (and what doesn’t), has always been important, but it is too often forgotten. But it is what brings the best out of people, and is also one of the fundamental drivers of good leadership. The key to this is something that lawyers are, in my experience, often not so good at. As I say to my six-year-old constantly: you were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason – you need to listen twice as much as you speak.

This brings me back to my first point, taking time to ‘stand and stare’ and, in particular, understanding the value of sitting back and hearing someone else speak. I have tried to attend more conferences and events in the past 12 months, to try and soak up what is being said, and to exchange views with others in the industry. And before I get into this, I have seen a growing trend towards dismissing conferences, especially ones that are involved in tech and the dreaded i-word, as not ‘breaking out of the echo chamber’. There is some truth to this – it can be slightly deflating to turn up and hear the same legal luminaries preaching to the converted for the umpteenth time.

Trust is at the heart of all of our interactions in the legal industry, and trust is built on relationships.

But dig a little deeper and there is tremendous value to be gained from these events. And yes, I know it is hard to take time out from the constant workload, but the working life of GCs can be massively enhanced by stepping away from the office and engaging with the wider community. You have to make time, and sometimes you have to invest, but the benefits are there for all to take.

I was invited to Legalweek at the end of January in New York, which discussed the business of law, diversity and inclusion, information and data. My approach to the event was simple: I listened and I engaged. When I arrived at each session, I put down the phone, didn’t check my emails when the speakers and panel discussions were taking place, and wrote copious notes. But I also put my head up and looked around the room – who was in each session, did I know them, could I see what organisation they were from.

At the end of each session, I spoke to the panel speakers and to others in the audience. Some I knew very well, some I knew only slightly and some I had never met. As a result, I had conversations about subjects I would not normally have encountered, made new connections, and some of those conversations are now following up into potential collaborations.

In short, at a time when most of the legal industry is obsessed with the aforementioned tech and i-word, blockchain, machine learning and the like – I went back to basics. I went back to human. A word kept cropping up time and time again in the sessions: trust. Trust is at the heart of all of our interactions in the legal industry, and trust is built on relationships. And relationships, as everyone knows, have to be worked at or they die. So, you need to invest in those relationships to get the best out of them, and to keep them going, even if there is no immediate outcome or need.

But here’s the thing: out of all that investment in listening to the panellists, talking to the other delegates and speakers, and engaging with the content, I gained something else. I learned something. In fact, not just one thing, but an absolute stack of ideas – new ways of working and a host of practical ways to make changes. From the theoretical to the here and now, the conference gave me a new insight into a range of potential solutions in the industry. All of us are magpies, stealing the best ideas here and there to shape into our own way of working. By taking some time out of the office, these events can help shape your thinking.

The things that I would be thinking about as a GC from that event are:

  • How does ‘VUCA’ affect the efficiency of my team?
  • Can I use the techniques I heard about to reduce the legal cost of my M&A transaction to a tenth of the price?
  • How can understanding the ‘4Ps’ marketing concept change how I interact with outside counsel?
  • Why are ALSPs are no longer ‘A’?
  • How do I insist my outside counsel budgets my legal work appropriately and, subsequently, how to reward/penalise?
  • How does Prudential’s ‘Spotlight’ programme actively track diversity in its law firms?
  • How can I use origination credits to my advantage?
  • What communication skills are needed with the C-suite to ensure they see legal spend is optimised?
  • I have the data I need to improve my legal department – so how do I extract it for analysis?
  • I don’t want ‘more for less’, I want ‘better for less’. But how?

I can tell you, the answers (or at least the right questions to ask at the start) were all there. The downside is that not enough GCs are there to hear it. True, there are some bad events out there, but look around and you will find huge value in attending the right conferences/seminars/workshops. Many will probably say they can’t afford the time to do it – after all, ‘time is money’ according to Benjamin Franklin. But looking at the above questions, realistically, can you afford not to?