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The road not taken – star GC offers advice on going in-house
Bjarne Tellmann

18 Feb 2019 / business Print

Road not taken – star GC's advice on going in-house

FTSE 100 Pearson’s general counsel (GC) Bjarne Tellman told gathered lawyers in Dublin this morning that it can be hard to crystallise the business value of the legal function.

At a breakfast seminar at the Merrion Hotel, Tellmann spoke about his peripatetic legal career which involved stints as in-house counsel for Coca Cola.

He described Pearson as a 144-year-old start-up with a storied history which is now focusing on educational publishing having sold its interest in both The Economist and the Financial Times. The firm now has 30,000 employees in 70 countries and has specialised as a learning business.

Six continents

When Tellmann began as Pearson general counsel, the business operated across six continents and had 220 lawyers, a figure now reduced to 140.

Tellmann described Coca Cola executive and Irishman Irial Finan as one of his great role models and quoted his key piece of advice: focus on what you can control and don’t worry about the rest.

He said that all GCs face a ‘more-for-less’ challenge that stems from an increased demand for legal services, allied with a pressure on costs that is shrinking available means.

In response, GCs must become mini-CEOs who apply a business framework to running a legal department, he said.

How to manage costs and become more efficient are the key questions, he said.

Tellmann says the key metric for GC success is combining being a good lawyer with being a good leader and steward of the available resources.

He said GCs’ greatest challenge is to quantify and articulate the intangible value of the service they bring.

“It’s hard to articulate to a CEO the probability of a long-tailed risk,” he said.

“Frequently, we are providing services that are preventing things from happening, so how do you articulate that?”

He urged GCs to find ways to ‘speak in numbers’ because that is what clients do.

“You should have a good grip on your spend, on how many contracts you are processing, on the litigation and what you have saved the company in wins that could have gone bad,” he advised.

GCs should classify and categorise what they are achieving in quantifiable terms across the areas of risk that their company faces, he said. 

Lawyers are like intelligence services, he said, and are only seen when things go wrong.

There is a perception that when lawyers are around, it’s bad news, he said.

However, he pointed out that the massive increase in regulation, post-financial crash, also creates opportunity for lawyers, citing the US Dodd-Frank Act, signed into law in July 2010, which spans 2,300 pages and created 400 new rules and mandates.

Career paths

On career paths, Tellman advised newly-qualified lawyers to spend their first three years at a law firm before making the decision to go in-house.

“The key question is, do you want to be a lawyers’ lawyer? Do you want to go deep and become an expert that advises other lawyers?

“Or do you want to attach yourself to a business and be able make judgments about risk?”

Tellmann said that in many ways what is fascinating about the law is its “imaginary structure”. “It doesn’t actually exist and yet we all pretend it exists,” he said.

Yet the rule of law is critical to civilised society and lawyers have a crucial  role in ensuring a sense of order.


Tellmann got caught in the 1992 Rodney King riots in LA and saw the rule of law simply evaporate. He said that for 48 hours, nobody believed in the rules anymore.

“It was a terrifying experience,” he said.

Tellmann revealed that he has studied Irish history and said he believes this country’s present wealth and level of progress is an extraordinary good news story.

He said that lawyers can be task-oriented at the expense of having people skills, and that they focus on the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’. 

Cultural intelligence

Communication and the ability to engage and tell a story are the key skills in the digital era.

Cultural intelligence is also crucial since different societies have different authority structures.

Trust must be built long before it is leveraged but grit is the key to success – the ability to keep going despite setbacks.

Tellmann said he always looks for evidence of grit when hiring.

Structural challenges

He said that law firms are facing huge structural challenges in the years ahead. Their rising legal tech competitors are not there yet, but they are closing in fast.

Many law firms are clinging to models that were efficient in 1895, he warned, but they must evolve beyond a focus on the hourly rate.

Bjarne Tellmann’s talk at the Merrion Hotel was organised by Colin Carroll of the Lawyers Business Development Club and sponsored by recruitment firm Hunter Savage.

Solicitor Colin Carroll, formerly of McCann FitzGerald and Arthur Cox in Dublin, established the Lawyers’ BD Club in London in 2011 and has organised over 100 TED-style talks and general counsel summits/fireside chats around the world since then. 

The Lawyers’ BD Club has chapters in London, Dublin, Paris, Dubai, Boston, New York and San Francisco. 

Previous Lawyers BD Club speakers have included the late statesman Peter Sutherland, Martin Shanahan of the IDA and Louise Phelan of PayPal.

Bjarne Tellmann published his critically-acclaimed book Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel in 2017.

Gazette readers can avail of a 20% discount by using the code BOLTLAUNCH - buy online.

Gazette Desk
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