Outside glass view of RPC building.

“Small is beautiful” – so long as it is well defined, well measured, electronically innovative and mature with its people & with its law firm partners: reflections on the PLC GC SME Conference 2015

30 October 2015

How often have you still been as engaged at the end of the day at a conference as you were at the start?

GC SME 2015 was one of those rare conferences where everyone was still engaged and the room was as full at the end of the day as at the start. And with, we guess, about 700 years' worth of legal experience in the room, the benchmark for the conference to be able to add value for those present was high.

This event is starting to become a necessary fixture in the diary for people running small- and medium-sized teams as the quality of the discussion and the relevance of the topics was high throughout the day and, as sponsors, we were delighted to see an event which was so focused on working smarter.

While in some senses it is true that all law departments face many of the same types of issues (just often to different degrees and at different times) the focus of this conference is on scalable solutions – not the counsels of perfection that larger departments with more resources and budgets can manage; but the counsels of pragmatism, practicality and pennilessness that distinguish the small- and medium-sized teams that make up a large proportion of the in house community.

In taking proper account of this for its attendees, the conference was shaped around three themes:

1: developing your role

Which focused on defining what exactly your role is and getting others to accept that definition – it is hard to get people to agree that you are doing a great job when they are not clear what job it is that you are supposed to do!

Highlights of these sessions included: reflections on the challenges of coping with the additional management roles that often get added to a GC’s remit; mapping and managing your relationships with other departments (the idea of having a “these are the things that we do – and these are the things that we do not do” list was very popular); and some very interesting reflections on how the SRA is changing the regulatory and training requirements that affect us – some good things, some less so and well worth being aware of so please do keep up to speed with what is on the SRA website.

2: delivering to the business

Two fascinating sessions. One was around some very simple and sensible ways of leveraging existing technology and software in your company, in your relationship law firms, and obtained through cost-effective procurement using the IT team in your company as friends(!) to achieve great results. One of the speakers gave a super illustration of what she had managed to achieve in this way around document management with a budget of just £30k!

In the second session RPC Managing Partner Jonathan Watmough joined three GCs on the stage for a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about “what we really, really want” about relationships with law firms and vice versa. In a conversation that was far more serious than the cheesy title suggests(!) the panel and several audience members reflected on the much better and more usable quality of working relationship that comes from engaged, thoughtful, long term relationships with good and regular dialogue between the teams.

As “Strictly” is back on TV again it might be fair to reflect that empathy, close engagement, patience and lots of regular practice in working together is as good for legal work as it is in making two Tango to success! Our slides for this presentation can be found here.

3: how do you manage and lead?

The third theme focused on effective and flexible people management, some really useful thoughts about what and how to measure your team for your own purposes so as to be effective and efficient and in order to justify to others what you do and how well you are doing it. A surprisingly low number of attendees professed to be doing much in this area yet when asked through a show of hands – but the levels of attendance suggest that all present appreciate that this is becoming a core competence for a GC and that it is far better to take the lead on measurement activity so that you can ensure that the measurements that are applied to you and to your team are appropriate and realistic.

Two useful sessions on project management (“now I understand it, I must get someone into my team who can do it as I do not want to!” – as one attendee said) and on being an effective coach and giver of feedback to your team then followed.

The day ended with a discussion of why it matters to be proactively looking at both the business’ forward plans and anticipated legislative change and combining the knowledge of both (a regular feature of our blogs and for good reason) to understand what you need to do to ensure that the business is properly trained and advised on legal matters and safely contracted – the shudder that went through the room was palpable when the question posed by a new Chief Risk Officer to their GC earlier this year was raised: “Tell me GC how can you prove that all people in the business know the law that applies to them now and which will apply to them over the period of our current business plan?”. The panel had their answers to this question – do you?

Clearly one of your answers should be to watch for the date of the 2016 running of this event to be announced and to book up as soon as it is.