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The caustic views of Sir Henri Deterding about lawyers

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Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.34.57By John Donovan

Today came news that Shell is slashing its panel of international law firms by 97%.

It therefore seems appropriate to reflect on the views about lawyers expressed by the extraordinary Dutchman most responsible for building Royal Dutch Shell into a global business: Sir Henri Deterding.

For some reason, although he was the undisputed head of the Royal Dutch Shell Group for almost 40 years, and said to be The Most Powerful Man in the World, his name now seems verboten at Shell. 

Printed below is a revealing letter he sent almost one hundred years ago.

13th September 1916

Dear Mr. Luykx.

I duly received yours of the 22nd ult. regarding Messrs, Rice & Lyons remuneration.

You gave me rather a start with your letter, because I gather from it that you employ solicitors much oftener than we would ever dream of doing.

Although we have an enormous business here, we very rarely consult lawyers. We only do so when there is really a legal difference or legal difficulty, whilst it seems to me that you employ them practically in every instance.

Lawyers are not business people, however large a lawyer’s experience may be, in the conduct of business he is absolutely useless. A lawyer placed at the head of a concern would soon bring the business to rack and ruin. He is not a creative genius, he is able to give his opinion, if a case is laid before him, but to ask a lawyer to draw up a contract for you is a most foolish thing to do, as this is bound to lead to trouble. Our custom here is to draw up a contract before having seen the lawyer and then to ask him to put it in a more legal shape. Such a contract is more likely to embody the spirit of what has legal shape. been agreed upon than one drawn up by the lawyer; to ask his opinion as to what you should do or not do is the worst possible way of conducting business which should be kept as far as possible from the lawyers.

It seems to me from your letter as if the lawyers are a kind of department to your business. Their idea that we should be inclined to give them a fixed fee is absurd, but what astonishes me most is their proposal that you should make an arrangement by which one member of their firm should give practically his entire time to the conduct of our affairs. We would never think of such an arrangement. We do not wish a lawyer to give his entire time to our business. We have not got daily disputes, neither do we want to create them. A lawyer absolutely unfit as a business man, he is to give us advice if trouble arises and if you employ him say 6 times a year this can be considered the average maximum. I do not think that we employ a lawyer many more times and our total lawyers bill is considerably less than yours. Messrs. Rice & Lyons’ statement that at the present time the daily routine business of our Company consumes the time and efforts of one member of their firm, is a revelation to me. How can you conduct business in such a way! I hate to see a lawyer in our office, if I want him I go to his office and limit the conversation to the shortest possible period. Allowing a lawyer to be practically in daily touch with me would certainly take 90% of my time which ought to be devoted to money making and not to discussing legal squabbles or legal phraseologies.

Yours sincerely,

/S/H. W. A. Deterding

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