The legal profession may have gained an unfortunate reputation for bleeding clients dry in the name of billable hours, but Queen’s Counsel Leslie Thomas would much rather companies didn’t pour every penny into their legal representation when faced with a crisis.
“It’s really important to see the whole picture and not just to focus on what the lawyers say,” Thomas says when talking to City A.M. at his London chambers. “What a good chief executive will do is not just focus on the legal advice but focus on the other advisers in other areas – public affairs, brand, what’s good for the consumer – and, more importantly, that little compass that's in all of us which is known as the moral compass.”
He adds: “Sometimes what might seem to be the right road to go down legally could be a complete disaster in terms of your reputation and corporate and public image.”
Thomas has spent all but the very start of his career at Garden Court Chambers near Lincoln’s Inn and the list of high-profile cases he has been involved with include representing the families of Christi and Bobby Shepherd, who tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning while on a Thomas Cook holiday in 2006, representing the family and friends of Mark Duggan and representing 11 families of victims of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster.
His experience with the holiday company – which Thomas stresses has learnt lessons from the incident – has likely reinforced another view of his that most people would probably not associate with lawyers; sometimes apologising is the right thing to do.
For those tempted to hide behind teams of legal eagles, Thomas warns: “Once the lawyers have gone, you and your board are there alone to pick up the pieces of your company, to answer to your shareholders, to repair the damaged relationship with your customers, and to face the music with the public.
“Therefore, it is crucial to look at the wider reputational impact. Sometimes it’s better to say sorry quickly, mean it and put what has gone wrong right than get tied up with months, sometimes years, of litigation.”
It’s particularly important that a company’s chief executive, as they are often the public face of the organisation, is prepared to drop the corporate act and show their human side in a crisis.
Thomas remarks: “You can’t take the credit, the bonuses, the shares and everything else that is of advantage when things are going good, and not be prepared to accept responsibility when things go wrong.”
He warns that approaching situations with a strictly legalistic approach can make companies seem “elusive and defensive” and urged businesses to realise that “it isn’t every fight that you have to come tooled up in terms of a team of City law firm suits and silks to fight your battles”.
Thomas recalls one case where “the company came with their lawyers and silks whereas the family were on legal aid, and it didn’t go down well because it looked like there was a real inequality of arms”.
In an ideal world, there would never be cases like Christi and Bobby Shepherd’s. In reality, Thomas stresses that companies need to be prepared for when the unthinkable happens.
“In life, the one thing that you can guarantee are things are going to go wrong,” he says. “The unexpected will happen and you can never plan for every eventuality but what you can plan for in terms of the known unknowns that a crisis of some type will happen.”
With the known unknowns in mind, he urges companies to put in place a crisis action plan, and adds: “There is no excuse for not thinking these things through because it’s too late to think about them once the crisis is on your doorstep.”