Lessons still being learned

I wrote this to my son 12 months or so ago, at a time when he had just missed getting on a Grad Scheme he really wanted (and before he had been accepted on another). He reminded me of it last week. It was taken from a post I had drafted a little earlier but for some reason had never published.

12 months on  from that letter I am about to change jobs again. I have the same feelings of excitement and apprehension; and in my past two years as the Director of Marketing at a Top 100 law firm, I have had very much the same run of successes and disappointments – and so the learning goes on . . .

Looking back over some 36 years of corporate law, I am struck less by the successes – of which there were a number – as by the disappointments. To some extent it is the latter that have defined my working life as a lawyer. And yet they have also allowed me to develop, to adjust, to grow: and so, in a strange way, they have been responsible for the successes. They have shaped how I have seen things, and have informed the risks I have taken.
Disappointment, both professional and private, and how we deal with it, makes us the people we are. This is not about having a glass half full or a glass half empty. My glass has always been more than half full. Rather it is about how we learn. Life would certainly be more straightforward without disappointment – and there might be considerably less pain.
But it would not, in the long run, be half as much fun.

It’s never as simple as it seems

In her recent  Editor’s Picks A grim picture for aspiring lawyers Catrin Griffiths, Editor of The Lawyer writes,

With newly-qualified retention rates at the major law firms patchy at best, training as a solicitor isn’t the safe option it was. Taken with the news that the major BPTC providers have hiked their fees again, is the best qualification for a legal career to have wealthy parents?

To which you might add, given the changes that the legal profession is likely to see in the next ten years, why would anyone thinking about training as a solicitor see it as a safe option anyway?

Today’s issues may be the apparent manipulation by City firms of their NQ retention rates (although as the comments suggest, this is not particularly new) and the problems facing LPC and GDL providers (Oxford Brookes being only the latest – Southampton Solent University, the universities of Sunderland, East London and Wolverhampton and Sheffield Hallam University all stopped teaching the GDL in 2011). But if you are about to invest a great deal of time (yours), effort (yours) and money (yours or your parents) in training for a career in the law, shouldn’t we (universities, law firms, the Law Society, the Regulator) all be a bit more honest not just about what that career may involve but what it may not. It is all too easy to duck this; and simply to say, “We don’t know”. You may not buy in to the full Richard Susskind vision of the future for law firms (although I happen to think that he is likely to be more right than not) but what we do know for sure is that the future will not be more of the same (even if many law firms seem to think it may be).



Grumpy old man

One of the joys of children is watching them grow up (even if they rarely avoid the mistakes we made). Sometimes they cut a little close to the bone. Last night was a case in point, as #5 (the only boy) offered the following observation,

You feel young until you realise that actually you’re old – a perpetual state of adolescence followed by a midlife crisis.

He added, although he omitted it from Twitter (probably ran up against the 140 character limit), “and then you’re fucked”. Charming, not least as I am a little more than a week short of my 60th birthday, and survived my mid-life crisis 20 years ago.

But it got me thinking, again, of generational change, of the excitement that it brings, and the opportunities it offers. And of a comment by Luke Johnson in his FT column some 5 years ago,

Owners and executives have a duty to ignore [behaviours where talent holds companies to ransom] and invest in young up-and-comers rather than greedy, established players.

Sadly not always the way in professional service firms.

Monkey business

One of the things I am most enjoying in what is laughingly called semi-retirement is the distance it allows me from what was once all-consuming. I am no longer a lawyer, and have nothing to prove: I have been there, done that and worn the t-shirt for far too long. Instead, I feel I have much to achieve still, and the energy to do it – and I no longer have to climb the hierarchy. The struggle up the greasy pole is a thing of the past.

I have been reading Dario Maestripieri’s article The Origins of Power in the RSA’s Summer Journal. I liked the section in which he considers the different social strategies of male rhesus macaques. He describes the problems for ‘challenger immigrants’ – “young, strong and impulsive, and [with] no patience for waiting in a queue”, who are not always successful, and then goes on,

In larger groups, despotic alpha males have built a system of alliances to protect their status and privileges. When ambitious males join one of these groups, their best bet is ‘challenger resident’ strategy. Challenger residents do not immediately confront the alpha male. Instead, they start out as low ranking and concentrate on building alliances with other males. Only after they have identified the strengths and weaknesses of the alpha male, become familiar with social dynamics within the group and established political alliances with other males do they launch an attack on the alpha male. Given their knowledge and strategic ability, challenger residents are often successful in defeating the alpha male and taking his place at the top.

Sound familiar? Simply substitute lawyer for macaque.

Rushed justice?

Nick Herbert may think (reported in The Guardian this morning) that “Justice delayed is justice denied” but it is never as easy as all that.

As his fellow Conservative MP, James Clappison said last August (again from The Guardian):

There has to be firm, deterrent sentencing but rushed justice will be bad justice particularly when you’re trying to sort the professional repeat offenders and organisations from the weak followers.”

Referring to the report of the leaked document, he said: “The situation is tough for the police, but we can’t have short cuts to justice. In every case we have to have normal high standards of justice for determining guilt and innocence and the right sentence.

Says it all.

What do bankers tell their parents?

Back in January 2010 I wrote in A Moral Profession about a post by Stefan Stern, passing the parent test, in which he referred to the remark by Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, to the Treasury Select Committee: “If you asked my mother and father about my pay they would say it is too high.” Stern went on (and this is what caught my eye),

We should always be ready to explain to close family members what it is we do at work, and why. The FT columnist John Kay prefers this sort of practical morality to any sort of imposed code of behaviour. If you would be embarrassed telling friends or family about aspects your job, the chances are you should not be doing it, he has said.

This came to mind yesterday for two reasons: first the furore over Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance; and secondly because of the remarks by Mr Justice Peter Smith in relation to the discontinuance of disqualification proceedings brought against the directors of the Farepak group. The judge’s full statement is here.

Mr Justice Peter Smith was pretty damning about the way the case was brought – and there will be more when the costs application is heard. At paragraph 76:

The result was that by the close of the Secretary of State’s evidence all of the main players who have been called in effect did not support the Secretary of State’s contention that the defendants had done anything wrong.

But he reserved his most withering remarks for the way that HBOS had behaved in the period prior to the Farepak group’s insolvency. Paragraph 116 is particularly damning:

The bank had, as I have said, almost a pride in their strong attitude, but they went beyond that of course because they in effect forced the directors to carry on in September/October collecting deposits, that at a time when they believed there would be an insolvent solution; they had missed it in August, but they expected it to happen later. During that period, as I have said, their exposure was reduced by £4 million, of deposits that came in in that period, and £6 million was used to carry on trading the companies, which were then sold in the pre-pack.

And in paragraph 117:

HBOS knew that those deposits would be paid and would be lost if their expected solution went out and that the only beneficiary of those deposits would be HBOS and secured a maximum return for HBOS.

And then in paragraph 122 :

This is not a court of morality, but I would suggest that HBOS really ought to look at the collections that they took in September and October and seriously consider whether or not they ought to make a further substantial payment to the compensation fund. It seems to me that what happened there, whilst apparently legally acceptable, might not be regarded in the public’s eyes as being acceptable. I cannot force them, it is entirely a matter for them.

HBOS is not happy with the statement and has said that the bank and its staff “acted entirely appropriately” and that the bank

made entirely reasonable decisions based on the information available to it at the time. . . The bank will of course consider the judge’s comments but does not agree that it acted inappropriately, as the judge has suggested.

Well (the Mandy Rice-Davies defence), they would say that, wouldn’t they.

I wonder how they are explaining things at home.

Leaving the Locker Room

This will be my last Lawslot Redux post as a practising lawyer.

In less than a week I change roles, leaving the world of corporate transactions – a world I have known for some 36 years – to focus on client relationships and client development. I will still keep my practicing certificate (and I have been assured that I will remain insured) so technically I will still be a lawyer – but without transactions it will not be the same.

Not surprisingly this change has led me to reflect on my career – far too much reflection, according to my children, who believe they should have a monopoly on introspection. But don’t worry, I am not going to go there in this post. But what has struck me is that notwithstanding how the legal profession has changed in my professional lifetime – and is still changing – the same cannot be said for the actual day job. This has changed very little in 36 years. There is no doubt that that the means of doing is different: back in the day we had no email, no fax, no PCs. Everything was typed (and then copy typed), drafts travelled (marked, and occasionally butchered, in precise colour order, with riders stapled, or stuck on with Sellotape), calls were landline, and you still dialled a number. Even if there wasn’t, there seemed a great deal more time.

But transactions, and our role in them as lawyers, have remained pretty well unchanged: same documents, same issues, same arguments (just a different generation of lawyer doing the arguing), same tensions . . . and same excitement. Each transaction the same in its essentials, each different in its particulars.

And it is the excitement that has kept me working – this is what I know that I will miss, but, as my last post, the time comes for us all.