If the new education secretary lives up to the best attributes of successful in-house lawyers, she might set a very good example.
Politics is full of ‘firsts’ that commonly trail business and civil society by decades. I think I’ve noticed another in the prime minister’s recent reshuffle.
Nicky Morgan MP, secretary of state for education – first in-house lawyer to join the Cabinet. I’m, perhaps unreasonably, pleased and reassured by this.
I could be wrong about this being a ‘first’, but in a government where public relations consultants are somewhat over-represented, we are hardly awash with corporate counsel in public life.
Whatever the party in power, an increase in their number would be a good thing.
Some of the most successful lawyers in private practice or at the self-employed bar, one respected consultant to the legal sector once pointed out to me, brutally, are good at just two things – the narrow cognitive skills needed to complete the tasks set by the clients, and marketing themselves – to clients and, when on the way ‘up’, to their superiors.
In that sense, a change of barrister fulfilling the role of attorney or solicitor general – or arriving as a minister at the Ministry of Justice – does little to change faults in the style of government.
But if Morgan lives up to the best attributes of successful in-house lawyers, she might set a very good example.
Think of the reported faults of her predecessor Michael Gove – dogmatic, confrontational, poor at listening, didactic, polarising… the list could go on.
By contrast, I hope Morgan is a breath of fresh air. Good in-house lawyers, it’s often said, are ‘political’, in that they have learned how the politics of the organisation work.
Without that appreciation, they know they won’t be listened to, and that the items on their wish-list won’t get done.
A good in-house lawyer rarely says ‘no’. They try to be in on discussions on initiatives that affect them early enough to influence them – and where that’s not possible, look for credible alternatives to the initiative they need to stop.
She should know how to use the ‘ringside seat’ a wide-ranging role provides – giving her a chance to both see the big picture, and the excuse to involve herself in all parts of the organisation.
If Morgan lives by the advice of high-profile corporate counsel Sandie Okoro, she’ll not be a gossip because, as Okoro tells groups of aspiring lawyers, a gossip isn’t trusted.
Think how many politicians would have longer careers and more allies if they were trusted… And she’ll behave in an ethical way, not seeking to bend the rules.
If hitting the ideal benchmark, Morgan will also be pretty cool about having juniors who are better than she is at some things, and will be a champion for them. And she’ll get a kick out of instances where her civil servants feel well-led, and the core team feels well-managed.
Ideally, good in-house lawyers don’t bore on about the need to make hard, unpopular decisions, but spend time developing the coherent narrative that takes people with them. If they don’t, they know colleagues start to bypass them.
Finally, of course, Morgan should also never lose sight of her department’s aims and the contribution success can make to the government in the round.
As I type the above I realise how often I’ve found these attributes in the in-house lawyers I’ve dealt with the over the past 15 years – and how vanishingly rare they are in public life.
Most parties have already selected candidates for the seats they believe they can win – and I’d be surprised if May 2015 sees an army or corporate counsel making their maiden speeches in the Commons.
But wouldn’t it be nice if, over the next few months, the new education secretary could show even just a few colleagues how politics and public life – the business of governing – really can be different.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor