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‘I am trying to start a conversation’: Pearson law chief’s new book creates playbook for the modern GC

While there is a body of writing on how to run an in-house legal team, much of it is dominated by US authors. Aiming to fill the void, Bjarne Tellmann, the outspoken general counsel (GC) of FTSE 100 publishing empire Pearson, has just published Building an Outstanding Legal Team. Tellmann discusses the book with Tom Baker.


LB: What’s the general theme of your book?

I wanted to create a model based on my experience and the experiences of people I know, that could apply to anyone, no matter the size of their team. It starts by tackling the ‘hardware’, the tangible aspects behind running a legal department. Managing your budget; structuring your outside partnerships; how to roll out technology; how to structure your team. Once you achieve some success on the hardware side, you have more credibility to tackle the ‘software’. That includes culture – how do you identify untested assumptions your culture rests on? How do you blow those up and re-tool your culture?

Then it turns to leadership skills. Nine out of ten leadership qualities are not legal in nature. There are consistent things like innate curiosity, being a constant learner that’s interested in ideas, excellent communication skills, understanding your business, being results-driven, having courage, understanding different leadership styles and how to use those flexibly.

The thing that’s often overlooked is grit. I’m tremendously impressed by single mothers or fathers who work their way through school with two kids and a night job. That’s more impressive than someone who’s extremely successful academically but has a lot of air under their wings.

The last part of the book is based on the threads that wind the way between software and hardware. First thing is change management – if you’re trying to change human behaviour, people get emotional. You have to understand how you’re going to tackle that. There’s a science to it.

The last thing is strategic direction before you set out on a journey. Be sure you have a pretty good picture of where you’re heading.

LB: Would favouring life skills over academic credentials unsettle some lawyers?

‘If you don’t have the ability to quickly acquire new skills, you won’t succeed.’
Bjarne Tellmann, Pearson

There’s a baseline of academic skill you need, but as a community we are timid in our selection criteria. It’s very easy to get at that by understanding somebody’s life story, or asking them: ‘Can you give me an example of a challenge you’ve overcome?’ It’s amazing the stories that come out of it.

I don’t think that should trump professional excellence, but the legal profession is one of the most conservative in characterising what constitutes a well-educated mind.

We have this notion that after seven years of school we stop learning. What’s much more impressive are people like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who became life-long learners. Bill Gates reads a book a week. That is education. Constantly grazing on podcasts and magazines, books, conferences – that’s what influences the kind of person you are, not somebody who thinks they learned everything they need at Oxbridge.

LB: Do the GCs you know match your key criteria?

I took them from GCs or people who helped me at various stages of my career. It’s a little idealised. The best GCs typically have a large combination of those skills.

What is the world we’re operating in today? It’s exceedingly complex. It’s a place where the legal profession itself is under massive change. With that complexity comes the room to acquire some of these skills. If you don’t have that ability to acquire knowledge quickly, I don’t think you’re going to succeed.

LB: Why are there so few books on how to be an in-house lawyer?

There were a ton of books on how to deal with the board, managing relations with the CEO, the role of ethics. What was missing was the more practical framework. I did an executive course at Harvard Law School last year. The professors told me: ‘Power has shifted from law firms to in-house over the last ten years. But for us, as educators, the in-house experience is a black box. It would be great if you were to write something to set out a model.’

If someone came to me and said: ‘I liked this part of the book, I didn’t like this part, here’s how to improve on it,’ that would be great. It’s trying to get a conversation started regarding what constitutes excellence in an in-house legal team.

LB: You mention cultural sensitivity as one of the key skills for the modern GC. Why?

There are fundamental differences between cultures. Some operate as high-context cultures, others as low-context. If I’m Japanese and you’re Japanese, I don’t have to explain the context of what I’m saying to you. In fact, if I do spell it out, it’s a bit insulting. On the other end of the scale, in high-context cultures, is the US, which is made up from immigrants from all over the world. The culture evolved to a point where people have no idea about each other’s sub-cultures, so they need to spell it out. Latin Americans tend to be more hierarchical and loyalty is really big. Asia is just another dimension. It’s often about building relationships long before you need it.

This is something you can teach. GCs should learn these skills and pass them onto their team members, but very often we don’t. That’s a recipe for misunderstanding.

Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel is available now.