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What QC’s can teach CEO’s. Life at the Bar

If you wander around Holborn or Temple in London, you might have unexpectedly come across a gatehouse leading to a secluded courtyard. Made up of Georgian, Regency, Baroque, and Gothic buildings, with peaceful formal gardens in the grounds, these elegant and quirky spaces feel slightly out of place amid the hustle and bustle of modern-day London. These are The Inns of Court, (Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner and Middle Temple) and, although they seem to be from a bygone era, they remain a crucial part of the training and life of barristers.

As a barrister, I joined Inner Temple which occupies the eastern half of an area called Temple that was chosen by the Knights Templar as their London headquarters in the late 12th century. A location made more publicly famous by Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’. The round church that they built there, modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, forms part of today’s Temple Church. The church stands opposite the modern Hall, which was built after the original was destroyed during the Second World War.

My legal home has been Red Lion Chambers for over 14 years and is currently home to over 100 barristers, including 24 Queen’s Counsel and 16 Crown Court Recorders. Rich pickings for wisdom; so, I decided to chat to two friends and colleagues about what QC’s may be able to teach CEO’s.

Firstly Gillan Jones QC who is the Joint Head of Chambers and winner of Crime Silk of the Year for Legal 500’s UK awards 2020, and also  Riel Karmy-Jones QC who is ranked Tier 1 for crime, and was the only criminal silk to be singled out for recognition as “one of the most daring, innovative and creative lawyers” in the UK in this year’s Lawyer Hot 100.

The art of silence: Great barristers are always portrayed on TV as wonderful advocates, orators and masters of persuasion. This is true but what doesn’t make great TV is their ability to stay silent, to listen and to observe what is not being said. Good listening, observing and sensemaking skills are essential. During this current crisis, never has there been a better and more important opportunity for leaders to stop, think, reflect, and really see, hear and understand what their teams and organisations need.

Great barristers know when the witness is at the boundaries of their first-hand knowledge, when the judge has reached the limits of her patience, and the jury, the point of saturation for facts and evidence. “One of the hardest lessons to learn is when to be silent. Some situations do not require an answer, or an intervention but simply that you listen,” Gillian told me. She went on to say, “Adding your voice to the discussion can sometimes be counterproductive or undo work that has already been done. As barristers, determining when not to ask questions is often more tactically challenging, as is when to stop and not ask that one question too many”.

Riel added, “a key part of being successful is the ability to observe the behaviours of others: their facial expression, body language, and intonation, and to carefully listen to their arguments.  By doing so you can adapt your approach, strategies and thinking, and ultimately turn a situation to your advantage.”

Communication that counts is an obvious strength when speaking of barristers, but it’s the ability to communicate clearly to a disparate audience that counts. Lord Denning, one of this country’s most celebrated Judges, once started a Judgement with the words ‘Old Peter Beswick was a coal merchant in Eccles, Lancashire.

He had no business premises. All he had was a lorry, scales, and weights.’ Lawyers the world over have always celebrated words and language. Syntax, grammar, idioms and metaphors are the tools of their trade. Lord Denning, a master of his craft, subscribed to the view that a submission was totally ineffective unless it could be easily understood, by all.

The spectrum of audience for a barrister is quite unique, from high court judge to incarcerated defendant, from specialist police teams to the national press. All must understand each and every word and be in no doubt as to meaning, application and impact. Gillian knows this aspect only too well.

“Knowing your forum is key and adapting your message accordingly. You quickly learn as a barrister to craft your submissions so that they can be understood by those who need to hear and be persuaded to act upon them. We often, for example, reduce complex fraud cases or detailed expert evidence to a few key issues or concepts that all can understand. Small changes can make a big difference, such as using people’s names instead of pronouns and adapting tone and intonation. Keeping focussed, succinct, and not losing slight of your objective is critical.”

Riel added, “We are in the business of communication, where clarity is everything. It is a real skill to keep things simple, direct and concise and yet convey the information you need to get across. But know your audience and banish preconceptions. Adapt, be flexible, and above all have empathy. There is no point stitching together flowery words if they cannot be understood by those who are listening, who are those you must persuade. It is all too easy to lose your audience, and therefore your argument by resorting to jargon and waffle.”

As leaders struggle to cope with constant change so they must ensure that all levels of their organisation, within all regions, regardless of cultural nuance, understand their message, completely.

Choosing your battles is a must have attribute of a good barrister and leader. High stakes environments, constant change and serious consequences form the very fabric of a major trial.

We don’t take every point or argue every issue in a trial.” Gilly told me. “What we however do is decide and deal with what really matters, sometimes you have to let something go in order to achieve the overall goal.”

Additionally, Riel said, “like any confrontation, having a clear strategy and reading the changing situation is the key to success. Understand your enemy. Know when to attack, but equally when to parry and defend. The most difficult thing however is knowing when to let an argument go, and to move on – to regain the upper hand.”

Much is talked about the word ‘agility’ in leadership circles. For the barrister it is seamless flexibility. The ability to anticipate and prepare before the event happens. Gilly recounts, “We always have to consider what we can live with. Many of us both prosecute and defend in major trials but regardless we have to be clear as to the end goal so that we can be nimble, quick, able to adapt but always focused on what we ultimately want to achieve.”

Barristers must also consider their innate leadership role, Riel told me. “Leadership comes in many forms – the most important thing is to show it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be noisy. People around you are looking to you for a wide range of things: confidence, clarity, flexibility, guidance, focus and decisiveness.  Sometimes it is simply about knowing when to smile, when to frown, when to be impassive – when to give and when to take.”

For many leaders at the moment, balancing work-life issues for themselves and many thousands of others within their organisations may feel overwhelming and acutely high stakes. However, we may never have this opportunity again to pause, reflect, learn and if necessary, unlearn as we prepare to lead and thrive in the new normal.

Stay safe!

Written by Adam Pacifico. Have you read?
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Adam Pacifico
Adam Pacifico is the co-author of The Leader's Secret Code: The Belief Systems That Distinguish Winners, Chief Learning Officer at PCA and a barrister. Adam Pacifico is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him on LinkedIn.