If Your Business Moves At Glacial Speeds, Don’t Blame The Lawyers.

There’s an old gag about lawyers that goes something like this. “What is the difference between a Groper and a lawyer? One is a scum-sucking bottom feeder and the other is a fish.” Insulting if you’re a lawyer – funny if you’re not. This kind of joke is deeply routed in our attitudes to the legal fraternity and the current legal context enveloping retail businesses. Many people make lawyers a scapegoat for frustration, anxiety and failure in business.

We can all point to examples of unnecessary red tape – rules, processes, regulations and laws that cover everything from the placement of a bucket and ladder to the desire to employ people on a fair and equitable basis. It is true that corporate governance, corporate watchdogs and consumer advocates are nothing to be sneezed at. The downside of being caught on the wrong side of the law is punitive and damaging on more than just the financial cost front.

But the current malaise that faces many companies where the legal department has denigrated to nothing more than a roadblock is unsustainable in the competitive environments we work within today and in the future. These environments move at lightning speed, change direction rapidly and are bumped around by influences from every direction. The businesses that succeed in the contemporary retail world are fast and fluid while having an ability to maintain strategic integrity. Seemingly, a definition that does not fit the usual view of the in-house legal department.

There are businesses – both large and small – that have used risk aversion as a catalyst for developing processes and recruiting people who fit the contemporary commercial context as appropriately as a pushbike in the fast lane on a motorway. But you can’t blame the lawyers and heaven knows they won’t admit liability either.

Legal advice sits within the category of professional services for a reason. It is a service. And services – like all other capabilities, enablers, supports and inputs – must be managed. Legal advice does not drive the business model nor the revenue opportunity. But it sure as hell can constrain them.

Great legal advisers are worth their weight in gold because they know what they are there for. To help you understand what you can do – not what you can’t do. To provide a gentle nudge rather than a heavy hand. To help you minimize risk and maximize gain. And to do all of that in an efficient manner that encourages the realization of opportunity within the brief time windows that it exists.

Modern retail management is time and energy consuming. But it always has been. In the era of ‘professional management’ in retail rather than the era of ‘merchants’ however, many argue we abdicate essential decision making tasks to process and so-called ‘expertise’ that inevitably slows down the business but allows plausible deniability. ‘The legal department’ is a case in point. There is no escaping reality and the reality of management is making decisions. Every decision, every day carries risk. You can build a world that fools you into thinking that risk aversion carries no risk. But nobody in commerce has ever sustained profit without taking calculated risk.