The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

Sucking it up; or how to lie in a bed that someone else made

For the past week I’ve been trapped under the biggest contract in the world. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of over-lawyered, one-sided, risk-averse verbiage, it has filled my every waking minute and haunted my dreams. 

On Wednesday and Thursday I spent a total of 11 hours on the phone to our outhouse lawyer, going over our review of this enormo-contract ahead of the deadline for submission of comments on Friday lunchtime. This being public procurement, that deadline was immovable under pain of exclusion from bidding. 

This is all par for the course for lawyers, of course. Huge documents, ridiculous deadlines, that unique combination of high pressure and utter tedium – nobody stays in commercial law unless they have a fairly high tolerance for all of that. 

But, this being in house practice, it can’t be as straightforward as that. It turns out that a sales manager has committed to a deadline for another client, to deliver something at close on Thursday, but hasn’t checked my availability first. 

As it happens, I can do both, because I have a window on Thursday morning while I’m waiting for the outhouse lawyer to write up the comments we discussed on Wednesday. But it doesn’t fly, because we need someone else to contribute to this work before I can do my bit, and she’s in meetings until 4 o’clock. 

So, I can’t do it. The enormo-contract has to come first, because the consequences of not meeting that deadline are something more than an embarrassing conversation with the client. 

And now it gets a bit weird. The sales manager pops up at my desk while I’m on the phone with the outhouse lawyer: once, twice and then a third time. Voices are raised: Is that really my deadline? Nobody else knows about this. I’ve made it up, haven’t I? My boss says you’ve got to do this other work instead. 

Well no, I haven’t made it up – frankly, I’d rather be doing anything else than this, but I genuinely have no choice. On the other hand, if your boss is pulling us out of this tender then everything’s good. Except he isn’t, is he? 

Anyway, I’m not here to whinge about my life as an abused in-house lawyer (well, not just for that, anyway). So here’s some constructive thoughts on what’s going on here… 

First of all, the in house lawyer is subject to the same expectations as his outhouse cousins, but without the same resources. The same standard of quality and speed is expected, but small teams and high workloads mean that excess work can’t be passed off to colleagues. 

These expectations are a function of being seen as a necessary evil, rather than a contribution to profit (a view that needs a post of its own to unpack). Nobody wants to hear about how difficult our job is, or about how impossible the deadlines are; they just want us to get the job done as quickly as possible. And they have no idea at all of what it would cost to get the same service from private practice lawyers. 

This isn’t a complaint: it’s a point of pride to be able to deliver on this expectation most of the time. I felt pretty bad about not being able to do that on this occasion, even though the situation wasn’t of my making. 

Which brings me to my second point: people are going to set stupid deadlines, and they’re going to make commitments to clients without first making sure that they can be delivered. This is the essential function of sales teams everywhere, and it isn’t going to change.

The great in house lawyer, then, doesn’t find out about these deadlines when the sales manager gets around to telling them. He or she finds out what each of the sales team is working on, asks them what support they are likely to need to deliver that, and negotiates how and when that support is going to be delivered.

This is what the in house lawyer can do that the outhouse lawyer can’t. It won’t stop surprises and conflicting deadlines, but it should keep them to a minimum. It also has the inestimable benefit of avoiding those difficult conversations with sales managers about how we can’t do what you’ve promised we will and by the way are you a complete idiot?

My final insight is more trivial, but worth a reminder nonetheless: pressure does funny things to people. My sales manager made his own bed, but once he’d done that he had to deliver on it or face the consequences. The enormo-contract was nothing to do with him, and so of course he was going to try to get me to do his work instead – the alternative was a big kicking from the client’s big man, and for a sales manager that’s like getting the black spot handed to you.

So I don’t blame him for the panicked interruptions and the desperate attempts to drag me away from the enormo-contract. Even the bizarre threats are ok – at least I got a blogpost out of it.

Anyway, in the end I found a fix for him. After all, there’s no functional difference between close on Thursday and first thing on Friday, right? 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to catch up on my sleep…

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