Lord Falconer: The nerdiest of lawyers can make a decision without reading all the papers or having all the boxes ticked
This week we were delighted to welcome Lord Charles Falconer to BCKR.
Looking back Charlie’s experience as a lawyer could seem quite depressing. Between the ages of 22-45 he was the nerdiest commercial barrister. He had concluded that success was brought about by serious hard work and always being on top of things – mostly on top of reading the papers. But now – after broadening his career with a stint in politics – he can look back and see how completely absorbed in the day job he was and that there actually other approaches to success beyond being the best-read person in the room.
Having made silk at 40, he was appointed to the post of Solicitor General at 45 (this had no relation to the fact that he used to share a room with the PM at school). Charlie had come to believe that lawyers were the cleverest, most hard-working individuals out there but he was disabused of the opinion during his time as Solicitor General. As a politician, the ability to think strategically and to connect with other people was equally as important as being across the facts. He learned that lawyers aren’t very good at that. You sometimes have to make decisions without knowing absolutely everything. He felt a bit at sea to begin with.
He moved from the SG role to being in charge of the Millennium Dome. Pretty disastrous for him. He was then moved to the Department of Housing which was a liberation. This gave him experience of a job outside of the law, with few papers to read, where the aim was fundamentally to help as many people without means as possible to get housing. This required developing relations in and out of politics to secure the necessary help. It is true to say that he became completely obsessed with housing.
After a year however, lawyers in politics were in short supply and he was moved to the post of Criminal Justice lawyer for the Home Office.
When Charlie left the world of politics he really wanted to continue working in housing. By that time housing associations were the biggest sector building affordable housing, local authorities having been deprived of the ability to build after Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’. Housing associations have their beginnings in charities or religious organisations and most range from small and local to huge associations worth billions with strong covenants relying on large numbers of tenants receiving housing benefit.
Charlie chaired Amicus Horizon for 9 years and found it to be an incredibly worthwhile experience. When he joined, the board was mainly populated with resident trustees but over the years they expanded numbers. More independent professionals including accountants and people from HR backgrounds. When he joined, at the start , they were actually in supervision due to a range of bad decisions that included:
- Bad maintenance contracts
- Health and safety issues
- Fraud and corruption
Between 2008-2017 Amicus merged, came out of supervision and built more houses than any other association in London.
Housing associations are keen to get high calibre professionals on their boards and lawyers’ skills are a good match. You get a much better understanding of the issues at a board table if there is a broad range of people, especially if you include those whom you might not come into contact with otherwise. You do need to be able to think strategically and it can be time consuming when you are firefighting. But housing (or the lack thereof) is an incredibly important aspect of social justice. If the issues aren’t addressed the UK may find itself in a similar situation as the US where communities are polarised – the extremely wealthy living in one area, next to those living in poverty. A two-tier city like Los Angeles. It is a massive social problem. But because of that, sitting on a housing association board gives you much needed insight in to a world that would otherwise pass you by.
Lawyers aren’t thought to bring much to the table. Can fall into two categories
- Big rhetoricians
- Read all the papers
In between are people who are able to deal with others, and to come to a conclusion about a problem without dotting every ‘i’.
Lawyers are reluctant leaders. Happy to dominate and control but ultimately shuffle the actual decision onto the client.
There is a balance somewhere between outrage and detail.
Ultimately his full engagement with a topic made him more willing to offer his views on issues, to form a view then provide the support for that view (where the reading remains useful), and always followed by leadership. As Solicitor General he had to engage in public policy issues as a lawyer – he was not particularly well liked by lawyers or politicians at that time, and he was particularly struck by the ability of non-lawyers to make good strategic decisions drawing on insights rather than by reading all the facts and figures first. Despite his political career he will always be perceived as a lawyer. There were people who questioned the decision to have a lawyer as Chair Amicus Horizon – even though he had been Minister for Housing! So – there are definitely hurdles to overcome.
What motivated you to go into politics?
Charlies absolutely loved the commercial bar but he had always engaged in politics and after the Labour landslide, when the role of Solicitor General came up he thought that it would be a two-year job and then he’d go back to being a barrister. He didn’t go into politics because he’d had enough of the law. He measures real success as gaining the approval of judges and lawyers …. He is still waiting for that!
In Housing Associations now, there is a tremendous tension between the profit making machine and developing enough affordable homes. How do you Housing Associations best deal with this tension?
Between 2010-2015 the government was pressing hard on Housing Associations to use their assets to make more money e.g. building 3 large houses in Mayfair and using the profit from those to build 30,000 affordable homes. A political issue – having assets which you should sweat for greater good. But housing is very dependent on grants, regulation and goodwill from government. The politics has changed as government has become aware that they need to put more grants. Simplistically more government money will equal more houses.
What are the warning signs to look out for if you are thinking of joining a Housing Association board?
- Strange movements of cash in the accounts
- Resident complaints
- Contractor manipulation
How do they recruit NEDs?
- Headhunters – Saxton Bampfylde and Odgers
- Inside Housing Magazine
There is no shortage of vacancies for these roles and in the next 18 months there will probably be a number of Housing Associations refreshing their boards as terms reach their end. If you make an approach to a local association they may suggest you start on a committee first and then transfer you on to the board
The most important thing is that you need to be engaged and represent and stand for the values of the organisation.