The GeneralCounsel and the invisible gorilla: the power of focus

Have you seen the video of the experiment with the invisible gorilla? You are asked to watch a short video in which six people – three in white shirts and three in black shirts – pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a count of the number of passes made by the players in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Half of the people (including me) do not see the gorilla. This has become one of the most famous experiments in psychology, partly thanks to YouTube, and is often used as an example of inattention blindness. In other words, when our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other things around us.

Not that long ago I saw an example of this in my own world, the legal services business. Taking overall responsibility for all the agreed legal matters of our customers is the core of our key service model, the Legal Department as a Service or the LDaaS. But how do we know that we have looked into all relevant questions? And once we know what needs to be in a place, how do we get there as efficiently as possible without re-inventing the wheel every time? These were the questions that we wanted to take a fresh look at earlier this year. The obvious choice for this task were the heads of our competence teams, i.e., Fondians, who have the role of developing the legal competence at Fondia. This group of people was asked to create a list of questions that would enable us to catch the key legal issues in a company. After this, we could define what documentation and training materials might be needed to efficiently help our customers with those issues, or to help ourselves help our customers in an efficient way. In other words the question was: “What does a legal department need in order to work efficiently?”. We knew we had a lot of templates (as do most law firms), but were they the right ones? Borrowing from the world of software, I guess one could say that we were checking our operating system – building our legal platform.

To begin with, the competence team that I am heading, the General Counsel competence team, was not given that much of a role in this. After all, there was an experienced group of people looking at this from all possible legal angles, so why do double work. However, more through a coincidence than anything else, somebody (wiser than me), tasked the General Counsel team to have a look at the end result of our legal platform. Going through it we actually found areas where we could contribute. It was NOT about improving on what the others had already done. They had already built a very solid platform and we had nothing of real value to add on the substance of the various legal areas.

The value the team of General Counsels could bring to the table was finding what had fallen through the cracks. Our value was in finding the questions “in between” and the angles that had not been covered. Some of questions were in between different areas of law and some of them were on the borderline between matters typically handled by lawyers and matters handled by someone else in a company. In the terms of the invisible gorilla experiment, we did not find any big undiscovered gorillas thumping their chest, but maybe a baby gorilla or two sitting quietly in the corner.

This was not about the team of General Counsels being more experienced than the heads of the competence teams. It was about somebody looking at things with a different focus: “Is everything covered?” rather than “Do I have everything covered in my area?”. We were not asked to count the passes, so we looked at it all. We did not have a clue on how many passes there were but we saw something else instead. A lawyer who is only asked to review a contract, reviews the contract. A lawyer who is in charge of the legal matters, will review the contract and then come with a suggestion for how things could be done more efficiently next time around. There is value in somebody taking an overall responsibility for legal matters and not only for sorting out legal issues one by one as they come up – be it then an internal or external general counsel. Somebody needs to spot the gorilla.