Loneliness at the top

Loneliness at the top is one of the least explored areas of senior leadership in the law, yet perhaps one with the most profound implications.

There are many books, articles and online resources about in-house legal teams. There is a huge quantity of technical resource for in-house lawyers about developing and implementing specialist legal resource. 

Material about structuring and operating legal teams is also available – not least through our own significant body of articles, many of which tackle issues not widely explored in the profession. There is very little guidance, though, which tackles one of the key issues impacting senior leadership in the legal team – that of loneliness at the top.

What's the problem?

At the heart of most organisations is a clear organisational structure, often captured in detailed organograms. Almost always, it will show straightforward reporting lines, with most operational and functional teams reporting into a member of the senior leadership team, and ultimately to the Chief Executive, or another executive director.

The individuals in those teams may themselves be members of professional institutions, and may have professional obligations. In general, however, their loyalty is to the organisation, their instructions from their line management, and the resolution of any problems in the hands of the organisation.

The lawyers in the organisation, though, are different. They are officers of the Court, and they have primary duties and obligations which override their employment obligations and their duty to their employer. Further, at the time of writing, there are proposals that in-house teams should be separately regulated as legal businesses, with the senior lawyer taking additional responsibility for compliance and behaviours akin to those of office holders in private practice.

From time to time, the question is debated as to whether the senior lawyer should also be company secretary, or not; or should hold compliance responsibilities, or not; or hold other management responsibilities, or not.

There are different models of in-house practise – those which are integrated into the business and which see themselves fundamentally as part of the operation and management of the organisation, and those which see themselves as a separate and independent advisory function, whose role is to provide advice which can then be accepted, interpreted, or indeed ignored by the organisation.

Equally, the question of the ethical responsibility of the senior lawyer may be considered. Historically, general counsel would often see themselves, or be regarded, as the ‘conscience of the company.’ Recent studies have suggested that there are significant ethical challenges in the in-house legal role, and that lawyers are not infrequently put in positions which place their professional responsibilities in question.

For most functional leaders in an organisation, issues are ultimately resolved through their line management. They can speak to their boss, and generally take direction to resolve that issue. Only if they are being asked to do something which is illegal or unethical would there generally be a problem, and a route to resolve that issue is usually available through some form of whistle-blowing. Equally, they will usually have peers within the organisation to whom they can turn, or to discuss the issue.

For the lawyer, though, there are no peers with similar professional responsibilities and duties to the Court. They are often not usually a member of the Board – and if they are, they still have those obligations. However good their relationships with executive colleagues, it can be difficult or impossible to discuss professional or ethical dilemmas. Couple this with the personality type of a lawyer which will generally seek to take an issue personally and to try to work through it, and it is no surprise that the general counsel role can be seen as intensely lonely, and extraordinarily stressful.

Why does it matter?

All of this matters, of course, because it impacts not only the organisation itself, but the wellbeing and health of the individual. It is also fundamental to the organisation’s legal team, and at a time when in-house teams can vary between sole lawyers to departments of many hundreds of legal staff spread across the globe, that is a significant issue.

Equally, there are a number of instances of General Counsel and other senior lawyers both in private and public sector organisations and government who have been subject to professional and regulatory investigations and scrutiny, or who have been dismissed from their role, or felt obliged to resign from it as a result of issues arising from the job and the behaviour of their clients.

By definition, in your role you are part of the business, but distinct from it. You are not – and cannot be – ‘one of the lads’ even in an organisation where the culture seems to demand it, and even in the ordinary course of things your job may well demand that you deliver advice and messages which are unwelcome, unpopular and not what the organisation wants to hear.

Your legal training – and your professional connections – may not be helpful. Law firms have their own difficulties but partnerships at least provide ready access to peers who may well be sharing the same concerns. As a senior in-house lawyer, you will have many relationships with law firms, but they are likely to be service relationships and you may well not feel it appropriate to share a difficult internal issue with a partner in your external firm. You may receive a helpful and proactive response, but equally there is a risk that the law firm’s interest differs from your own.

What can you do about it?

The first thing to recognise is that the feeling of loneliness at the top is not confined to you. Interestingly, the nearest equivalent role in an organisation which feels such pressure is that of the Chief Executive – prime amongst the Board yet subject to constant scrutiny and often criticism, it is easy to take issues to heart.

In any event, it’s important to assess the problem in as detached a way as possible. Is the issue purely work related, such as for example a difficult legal issue, or a lack of resource, or something which can be solved with additional legal help? Is it a matter where advice needs to be given which the recipient (however senior) won’t want to hear? Is it a personality clash, or a behavioural issue with someone in the business, your manager, or the Board? Is it a matter of ethics, whether professional or in relation to the business?

Bear in mind, too, that while you may find it difficult to share a problem, others may well see you as a confidant. Many general counsel find that colleagues approach them in confidence in preference to speaking to their own line manager, or to using a whistle-blowing line. In bringing their problems or concerns to you they are giving the highest possible accolade to you – but they may be presenting you with a problem.

It’s also important to realise that however difficult the issue, you will not be the first person to experience it and there will be people who have been through the issue before. The key thing to bear in mind, though, is that you should not seek to bear the whole responsibility yourself, or fall into the trap of thinking that only you can solve things.

It’s easy for a feeling of loneliness to turn into something more. A difficulty in coping with an issue, pressure from a dominant manager, and a lack of professional support within the organisation can have serious consequence. Some people react by trying to work harder and harder. Others find themselves simply unable to cope. Neither response is unusual, and both are natural – and can easily turn to uncontrolled stress and become a mental health issue. It’s important to recognise the signs and to realise you’re not alone.

Who can you talk to?

There are a number of routes. If you have an external mentor, or you know a counterpart in a similar role, they will often provide an excellent sounding board for you. You might have a former in-house colleague now in another organisation, or trusted senior colleagues in your own team. All may have different and fresh perspectives.

Even if you have no inkling of a problem, you may want to think about putting in place an arrangement with a friendly fellow general counsel as a sort of mutual assistance arrangement – or even simply a safe relationship to let off steam. You may not need to use it, but the ability to have it, to share experiences and to understand that someone else has your corner is invaluable.

Building a support network – which may be entirely detached from your organisation, or even your profession – can be a route which is lifesaver, both in metaphorical and real terms. A professional coach or mentor may also be someone who can provide a safe space for you to think through and consider difficult issues and decisions, and CEOs will not uncommonly have such a relationship which they can turn to in times of extreme stress.

You may also find that you can speak to a senior internal colleague – perhaps the HR director – but of course you must be comfortable in so doing. There is nothing to be gained by speaking to someone while feeling that you cannot do so confidentially.

If your line relationships remain intact, you should try to speak to your boss, even if that is the Chief Executive. They need to know that all is not well – or even just that you are worried. If not, the Chair of the Board, or senior independent director or equivalent should be willing to speak to you confidentially.

You will find some excellent reflections on this topic in Paul Gilbert’s writings and blog posts [See Further Reading]. The SRA runs an ethics hotline, and organisations such as the C&I Group and Association of Corporate Counsel may be able to arrange a discussion in complete confidence with an experienced general counsel.

Your organisation may have confidential counselling arrangements in place through an employee assistance service. Often these will have access to trained and experienced counsellors whose professionalism and guidance can be invaluable to help you think through the issues.

What if all else fails?

You must do all you can to ensure you share the issue with others. If you are in an organisation and all else has failed, you must feel able to share your concerns with the chair of the organisation’s board. It is, of course, possible that in some circumstances the chair is themselves unhelpful, unsympathetic or part of the problem. In that situation it may be that your decision becomes whether to stay or go: that can only be your decision but it really should be shared with others who may be able to look at the options with more detachment than will be possible for you.

In considering your options, you will want to think about your professional responsibilities and your loyalties to your team and the broader organisation as well as the implications of the problem at hand. You should not allow anyone to belittle or diminish your concerns and the seriousness of your decision, but try to approach it with the detachment and professionalism which you bring to the rest of your role.

Some closing thoughts

Loneliness at the top is one of the least explored areas of senior leadership in the law, yet perhaps one with the most profound implications. Most general counsel will go through at least one major crisis in their professional lives which becomes all-consuming far beyond the normal demands of the role. It is critical that to recognise the signs, to consider some of the support routes identified in this article, and above all to understand that you are not alone, and you should not seek to solve the issue on your own.

To seek help and counsel is not a sign of weakness or inexperience, rather it is the first step to accessing the experience and expertise of others who have been there already. If you are reading this now and the overwhelming feeling of loneliness is closing in on you, now is the time to do take the first step to deal with it. Do it now.

Further Reading:

CLL Resources:

Resilience and recovering from setbacks

Other Resources:

A report on the well-being of in-house lawyers Paul Gilbert


Law Society and SRA Guidance https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/topics/regulation/ethics-in-law

Commerce and Industry Group http://www.cigroup.org.uk/

Association of Corporate Counsel https://www.acc.com/

LawCare - a mental health charity for the legal sector https://www.lawcare.org.uk/