LAWYERS’ COLLECTIVE ability to think like ‘normal’ people will ensure a strong demand for their services, according to one of Australia’s most visible executives.
In an era where there is a general shortage of talent, Telstra’s group managing director of public policy and communications, Phil Burgess, said regard for the role of the lawyer has remained very high as other professions become less relevant.
Speaking exclusively to Lawyers Weekly about some of the issues he intends to raise as the keynote speaker at the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association’s NSW conference this April, Burgess was effusive in his praise of lawyers.
“The lawyer doesn’t think analytically — he thinks analogically. He says ‘is this situation more like this situation or that situation’, and that’s the way ‘normal’ people think,” Burgess said, explaining that the skill-sets for negotiation, contracting relationships and analogical thinking remain prominently in demand.
“The analyst — the guy who trained in policy analysis or economic analysis — he doesn’t think the way ‘normal’ people think. But today we’re going from what I call board games to ball games.”
The difference to Burgess is clear. Board games are played with set rules in isolation, whereas the course of ball games can be influenced by reactions from the crowd.
“A board game is an insiders’ game and you play on a board like Monopoly. The rules are set. When you move, everybody plays by the rules. You have a chance card every once and a while, but you know it’s pretty cut and dry.
“But a ball game has all those things — rules and everything — but it also has a crowd and you play to the crowd,” he said. “Only a fool would say the crowd doesn’t affect the outcome of a lot of ball games.”
Doing business in a ‘ball game’ setting necessitates communications staff, or others who can think like ‘normal’ people, just like lawyers, Burgess said.
“Lawyers are pretty good at that because they think like ‘normal’ people. [They] don’t think in terms of a data matrix of cases and attributes. They think in terms of cases. They think in terms of situations.”
The strength in a lawyer’s thinking lies in his or her ability to make intelligent comparisons, he said.
“When they start talking about something, they don’t say ‘well you know this is the best automobile because it has this kind of engineering and this kind of power brakes’.
“They say ‘you know I really like this car because my old car wasn’t very good but this car is’. Or ‘you know I really like this car because I can’t afford a Cadillac and this has a lot of features a Cadillac has’,” Burgess said.
“So that’s the way lawyers think. They have an almost highly-trained ability to think and argue the way ‘normal’ people think and argue.”
Radical changes to the way in which the business world operates over the past few decades also place those with legal training at a distinct advantage, according to Burgess.
Burgess points to the evolution of yesterday’s troublemakers into today’s customers as an enormously difficult issue for organisations to deal with, but an issue that lawyers are the most well-equipped to handle.
“Consumerism, feminism, civil rights, environmentalism: these are all good things that result with the spread of democracy,” he said.
“They result from empowering people to play a larger role in society and to have more control over their lives. So I think the trends are good. They just create more problems for organisations that are not used to having to deal with what they used to call troublemakers. So yesterday’s troublemakers are today’s customers.”
The relentless progress and pace of technology was another key driver for the need for lawyers, he said.
“All this new technology is causing this re engineering and restructuring and de-layering of big corporate organisations in response to digital technologies,” he said.
“One of the big things you’ve got is a whole new range of new products and what do you do with the exiting old products. [Telstra has] to work with how do you exit CDMA as we spread the Next G network around.
“When people say ‘why do lawyers have so much power and influence in a corporate?’ well that’s why. You know because we’re facing a very complex environment and the only way that businesses can operate is through stability and law gives it stability.”