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Leigh Dance has written, published and spoken extensively on many aspects of global legal services, at major global conferences and in business and legal industry publications worldwide, including The Wall Street Journal.  Click here for our extensive archive of past (we believe still insightful!) published articles.

Dance is author of Bright Ideas:  Insights from Legal Luminaries Worldwide, published by Mill City Press and available on Amazon.  Bright Ideas is a compilation of 23 original essays by leaders and influencers around the world.

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In-house counsel must find more time to think

Does the idea ‘pause to reflect’ feel like a pipe dream?  If so, you are not alone.  Domestic and global in-house counsel are so busy doing that you rarely free yourself from the daily grind to make time for focused thinking.  While you may be in the constant ‘doing’ syndrome for good  reasons, bad habits deserve to be broken.  This article looks at what you’re missing and gives seven specific ways to introduce regular reflection into your demanding days. At one point during a discussion I moderated last week among highly intelligent, successful General Counsel, a global compliance officer and corporate secretary said, “These days I rarely have time for deep thinking.” Every head around the table nodded in agreement.  It’s clear that you strive to perform highly, and you do what is necessary, while worrying about what you couldn’t get to.

You respond to requests, provide legal coverage where needed, flex your schedule to the latest urgency, participate in countless meetings, read a gazillion emails, keep in touch with your   stakeholders and diligently distribute the 39th draft of the Board document, ten minutes before the meeting starts.  You may occasionally think through legal issues, but thinking usually stops there.

The scenario doesn’t allow wiggle room to just think about how to address an operational problem, or recognize a structural issue or advance in the longer term. With apologies, I envision a mouse that so diligently runs the treadmill she doesn’t notice the 3 fractured wheel spokes.  “No time for deep thinking” is unsustainable, because:

  • To meet a flat budget, demonstrate your value and handle an increasing workload, changes may be needed that go beyond short-term fixes. It will take serious thinking and planning to identify what needs to change and to decide how best to do it.
  • To deliver an in-house legal capability that partners with internal clients to achieve your company’s growth strategy, a full or partial transformation may be warranted. You can get outside help but you can’t outsource the whole project. It requires serious reflection.
  • Intellectual curiosity is required of global in-house counsel at all levels today. To follow political and economic developments that may create new legal risks or regulatory actions, you must frequently raise your vision from 3-foot level legal matters to the 30,000- foot geopolitical horizon.  Absorb, inquire, analyze, think.

Good idea, you say, but a lot easier said than done.  I agree, and that’s why you’ll find here seven ways to insert valuable thinking time into your work week:

1)  Get out of the office for a 20-minute walk at least once a week, with no purpose but to think.  Keep a running list of no more than five topics that you believe deserve a pause for reflection.  Select only one topic to think about on your walk.

2)  Participate in at least two half- or full-day participatory programs with peers annually.  This out-of-office time is both highly informative and gives you inputs that widen your perspective.  Plus it’s legitimate thinking time.  When you’re there, turn off your handheld.  Last week during a 2.5-hour roundtable, not one of the chief legal executives looked at their phones.  Nearly everyone commented after about how the collective focus contributed to a high-caliber  discussion.

3)  When there’s a topic you want to address but never have time, agree to write an article or give a presentation on that topic for an association or publication. The commitment forces you to gather information, analyze and reflect on the topic, with the added benefit of laying out your thoughts clearly.

4) Establish and vigorously enforce a rule that on a select day of every week, for 3 to 4-hours,  you will not read or respond to email (and suggest that your team follow the same rule).  In a dire emergency, you can be reached by phone, but warn that it must truly qualify to justify the interruption.

5) If you are constantly interrupted in the office and can’t concentrate, schedule thinking time on your calendar and call it what you wish.  You can use flights or train rides for deep thinking.  Or schedule regular out-of-office appointments and meet your thoughtful self at a quiet location, smartphone silenced.

6) Learn to recognize when you or your team members are distracted or tired and less able to address a problem.  At those times, guide a 2-minute standing pause.  Ask everyone to focus on inhale-exhale, then have them stretch their right arms up towards the ceiling, then the second arm.  Hands on hips, slowly twist to look over your right shoulder, then left to look over your left shoulder. Shrug your shoulders up, then drop them down—twice. When you sit back down, I guarantee that all of you will be more focused.

7) Paste on your office wall the words of Viktor Frankl:  “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I’ll be interested to know which of these options work best for you.