LegalGeek: changed, yes; a terrible beauty, no (Guest Post)

The words of W.B. Yeats in his often quoted poem Easter 1916 could be applied in part – the first part – to Legal Geek which I attended yesterday in London:

“All changed. Changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born”.

The word terrible referred to the terror experienced by the repressed, as Yeats saw it.

Covid 19 has changed Legal Geek, utterly. Double jab checks. Three choices of coloured lanyard: Red – feck off, don’t give me The Rona. Yellow: please, try not to give me The Rona. Green: let’s hug and high five and I’ll worry about getting The Rona later. Most were wearing green.

Numbers were down, and most of those who were there would not, most likely, have watched The Man From Uncle on telly as children. I was probably the oldest person there and, showing my age, the coldest.

I was absolutely freezing. While I was regretting not bringing my wooly pully, Chris Fowler bounded onto the stage wearing what can only be descibed as a thin tee. Dan Kayne looked like he had come from a meeting in The Valley. The wonderful MC, a woman from Northern Ireland, was dressed for a hot day in Ballycastle. I was jealous.

The other change – and one welcomed by attendees – was the number of talks on diversity and inclusion – not that I felt the crowd was massively diverse but the yearning was at least palpably present and heartfelt.

I had no sense that the GC 100 or the Managing Partners 100 – if such a list exits – were there in force. Not of course that they shoud be – many of them leave tech to others and or to the young. My point is that they could have been there and weren’t.

The short talks format was excellent and the quality of the presentations benefitted from the brevity. Chris Fowler gave an excellent exchortation on why and how to get out of your comfort zone; Dan Kayne on why we should care for people first; Ganga Shreedhar on how storytelling can help change behaviour. Three lawyers from Clifford Chance gave an excellent three-way talk on how tech is changing things, to mention just a few.

The closest mention – in my hearing at least – to upholding the rule of law was made by Jenifer Swallow: “our first contract is with society”.

And that’s my beef with Legal Geek: it’s as if the underlying dysfunction in the profession cannot be addressed and must therefore be factored into BAU on the basis that “it is what it is”. We don’t write the Big Playbook, just the tech playbook.

Legal Geek and its followers stretch every sinew to find clever tech solutions to the provision of legal services. This is to be applauded and I do. But they behave as if the purpose of legal services remains the same: to add value, when the purpose of lawyers is to uphold the rule of law, the administration of justice and to act with independence. Wrap tech around those concepts and you have my attention.

If I had given a talk on these concepts yesterday – I suspect I would have been heard in stony silence. People died in trenches so you can have your privileged conversations with your clients, I would have said. They would have winced. Way off message, mate. No high fives for me, I’d bet.

I don’t blame them. They are good people, working hard, doing their best to get by in a mad world.

But I don’t undertsand their lack of action on the underlying horrors which dog their profession. Mentioning the problems in talks is helpful but clearly not enough. Just look at the recent LawCare report, particularly the burnout and psychological safety scores. No high fives there. More like a fist in the face.

“We need to address the big elephants in the legal wellbeing room, the ingrained culture of long hours, lack of management support and poor boundaries between work and home, and until we do, not much is going to change” says Elizabeth Rimmer, LawCare’s chief executive to the FT.

Nor did I notice much attention paid to the unresolved “inherent tension” (@IRLSR S4.12) in the relationship between in-house lawyers and their bossses who they advise. No one mentioned – in my hearing – the victims of the POL and RICS candals, to mention just two.

If Legal Geek can do such a splendid job in addressing the diversity and inclusion issue why can it not promote a root and branch review of the the role and purpose of legal services in society and how law tech can enable it?

Afterall, every tech programme I have witnesessed in nearly 40 years in corporate life starts, rightly, with the question: what are we trying to achieve here?

The pandemic, the growth of the ESG, MeToo and BLM and other social movements are making value add a dated concept.

The behaviour of the legal profession continues to be terrible. There will be no revolution until lawyers and the non-lawyers they serve come together to fight this terror.

Then a terrible beauty will be born.

Ciaran Fenton is a Leadership & Behavioural Change Consultant. His blog is here. Legal Geek is great. If you don’t know about it check it out.

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