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Why you should wear florescent yellow to work (Sometimes)

Posted by: Laurence Simons 23/07/14

By Mike Elston, Chief Counsel Combat Air, BAE Systems

Anjam Akbar’s excellent summary of the benefits of international work assignments in the June newsletter really struck a chord with me. Like Anjam I’ve been lucky enough to live overseas (in my case India) and to go on extended assignments to exotic locales including Abu Dhabi, Thailand, the US and South Africa. I can only repeat Anjam’s point; it will make you a better lawyer and a better person. However I’d like to add an aligned but different point. Consider this to be a companion piece to Anjam’s offering if you will.

My question is this – before looking to the far horizon, how well do you know what is happening right under your nose?

In my time at BAE Systems I’ve been based at a number of operational facilities. I’ve worked variously at a tank factory, a Royal Navy base and most recently at Warton, where the Eurofighter Typhoon is assembled. These are tremendously large, complex and dynamic places. What I’ve come to realise is that the “go and look at stuff” tour that you tend to be ushered through when you arrive may be interesting but, ultimately, it tells you very little. It probably doesn’t impart much of a sense of how the business works or what issues are important to your non-lawyer colleagues.

So, what do you do about it? The short answer is that you need to go and look. And talk to people. And ask questions. And keep doing it.

The natural consequence of this, if you work in a manufacturing environment, is that once in a while you will find yourself in a florescent yellow waistcoat, safety glasses, a hard hat and steel-toed boots. Don’t regard this as a bad thing. In fact you should treasure those moments, even if you do look like (in my case) Bob the Builder’s dad.

For a very modest investment in time, you may find you learn more about your business and the people who hold it all together than you will in a year’s worth of project reviews and strategy workshops. You may find that you hold the keys to unlock an issue that has been troubling a team for months. You may discover that a legal decision or instruction you gave, while right at the time, now has unintended consequences or has been rendered obsolete. You may discover that everything you thought you knew about an issue was wrong, because you took people’s word for it rather than getting out of the office and seeing for yourself.

It can sometimes feel that the never-ending email traffic, the weekly meetings and the PowerPoint charts are a fiendish conspiracy designed only to blind you to the reason why you are a lawyer in business at all. Don’t forget, you are there to enable your company to sell stuff for a profit. You are there to ensure the business operates in accordance with the rules and even finds ways to use the law to create business advantage.

So ask yourself these questions:

  • When did you last visit the shop floor rather than the boardroom?

  • When did you last re-energise yourself by interacting with the heroes who, on a daily basis, keep the business ticking?

  • Should you really be regulating a business activity or function if you haven’t spoken to them recently (or worse yet never met them)?

  • Are you, actually or metaphorically, wearing enough florescent yellow?

You decide.