I love general counsel panels. Those GCs. They say the darndest things!
At a recent General Counsel panel discussion I attended, a GC on the panel mentioned one of his pet peeves. I’ll do my best to quote him directly so you can get the full impact of his words: “When I ask you for business advice (we’re not talking about legal advice here), I want you to give me ‘business advice’. I don’t want you to tell me what my options are. I want you to tell me what you think I should DO. If you know my business, this shouldn’t be hard. And yet I almost never get real advice from my lawyers.”
He went on to describe the typical conversation which went something like this:
GC: ‘We have this problem. What do you think I should do?’
Trusted Advisor: ‘Well, you can do this, which might be good for these reasons. Or, you can do that, which might mean some other kind of result. Or, lastly, I suppose you could do whatever, which brings up a whole other set of issues.’
GC: ‘Which would you do?’
Trusted Advisor: ‘Well, that depends.’
GC: ‘On what?’
Trusted Advisor: ‘A host of factors.’
To which the Trusted Advisor proceeds to review a litany of issues that would need to be investigated (read: researched by an associate) and thought through (read: discussed with my partners). The GC ends the conversation declining the Trusted Advisor’s offer to write up a ‘brief’ memo outlining the issues for the GC.
UGH. The GC’s frustration was palpable.
In the attorney’s defense, giving bad advice can lead to malpractice claims. But that does little to relieve the GC’s frustration. And we’re talking about ‘business advice’ here, not legal advice. As the GC went on to say, ‘if you know my business as well as you say you do, if you’ve been paying attention, you should be able to give me your thoughts on what I should do’. GCs and other business executives don’t follow advice blindly anyway. They consider the advice, probably along with the advice of several others, and make their own decision. So the stakes are not as high as lawyers might think they are.
Many attorneys think they are giving good advice by laying out options. But what business leaders want, and honestly people in general want, is for someone to tell them what they would do. Not the options they have. We want an opinion. That’s why we asked.
Sometimes an illustration using a totally unrelated industry can bring the point home. Let’s say you are getting your house painted and are talking to two house painters about the job. You’re not sure what color to paint the house so you ask the professionals. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Painters must deal with paint color questions a lot.
“What color should I paint my house?”
The first painter lays out options of the popular house colors, the benefits of darker and lighter shades and the importance of paint quality and ends the conversation by giving you a color chart of a thousand color samples and tells you that sunlight is the best light to pick colors under. You have every option known to man laid out in front of you but you are nowhere close to being able to make a decision- in fact, you’re probably further away from being able to decide.
The second painter responds to the ‘what color’ question differently. Instead of telling you all he knows about colors and color selection (which is what the first painter did and how most attorneys would respond), he asks you a couple of questions. “How long do you expect to be in the house?” “What is your style of décor inside the house?” “What types of colors do you enjoy elsewhere in your yard?” “Are you more traditional or more modern in your tastes?” These questions clarify the painter’s understanding of your situation and preferences and enable him to make a recommendation on the colors he would choose if it was him. He then offers his recommendation based on what he’s understood and suggests a house with that color pallet for you to drive out and see.
You may or may not take the second painter’s advice. But you are definitely closer to being able to make a decision. The second painter has served his ‘Trusted Advisor’ role well in that he has helped facilitate a decision. The first painter thought he was being helpful by sharing his knowledge with you and giving you lots of options. It may be a subtle difference, but the truly great professionals guide their clients in their decision making. And as the GC said so clearly, this guidance is exactly what he asked you do.