On family, community, and the origins of Crafty Counsel. Taking a walk with Ben White.

Ben White is the founder of Crafty Counsel, a community for in-house legal professionals. Crafty Counsel provides high-quality creative content, intimate community meetups, and larger events, as well as access to resources for in-house counsels.

On family, community, and the origins of Crafty Counsel. Taking a walk with Ben White.
A rainy day in Fitzrovia, Central London

Ben White is the founder of Crafty Counsel, a community for in-house legal professionals. Crafty Counsel provides high-quality creative content, intimate community meetups, and larger events, as well as access to resources for in-house counsels. We meet on a rainy day in Fitzrovia, Central London. It’s not quite fully raining yet, but my cameraman is worried about his equipment. We decide to circle the block, get a cup of coffee, then continue the interview in The Lucky Pig cocktail bar, which the internet says is “ideal for meetings” and “available for hire at highly competitive rates”. With my cameraman begrudgingly appeased, we begin to stroll, and I ask Ben about his education, upbringing, and career path. 

Lilian Breidenbach: I would love to know how you got started. Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Ben White: I come from a family of lawyers. 

LB: Me too. But they told me to never study law. Did your parents say: It’s a great job, do it?

BW: More or less. My parents would say: You can do something else, but ultimately, if you wanted to be a lawyer, that would be a good route. So there was a lot of background noise that probably swayed me into going towards that. My dad was a partner at Clifford Chance, and my brother is a partner at Morrison Foerster in Tokyo. I ended up following my dad into the same firm, but I took a really circuitous route. I did an undergrad degree in History, and later I deferred my offer at Clifford Chance to do a completely law-unrelated, two-year master’s in Chinese Studies, where roughly half of it was Chinese history and half of it was learning Mandarin. I went this whole route of trying to be a China specialist. Sadly, that’s all behind me now. My grand plan was to become “the China lawyer” at Clifford Chance. Turns out that lots of other people wanted to be “the China lawyer”, and most of them were Chinese. 

LB: Did you spend a lot of time in China?

BW: I studied in Beijing as part of my master’s program, and I worked in Shanghai at Clifford Chance, for six months each. That was really super. I also spent a fair amount of time going back and forth, backpacking and studying, so I’ve been around quite a lot of the country. But I haven’t been back since 2011. After I qualified, the connection to China became less and less important, partly because I started a family here, and partly because other opportunities were coming up at the firm. But China was an important part of my life for quite a few years. 

We try to enter a coffee shop, but the first two doors are locked. Only the third one admits us. Then the barista needs to ask his General Manager whether it’s OK for us to film inside. I think: My cameraman just can’t catch a break today. But we are granted permission. I order a black Americano, Ben a white decaf Americano. The deafening noise of Caravan coffee beans being freshly ground disturbs the delicate sensitivity of our microphones. Finally, to-go cups in hand, we exit the coffee shop, amble towards The Lucky Pig, and continue our conversation. 

LB: Did you like being a lawyer?

BW: Yeah, I did. But I figured out quite early on that it was only going to be temporary. I always sensed that I probably didn’t want to become a partner. Maybe I turned that option down because of my dad having done that, and feeling like I should do something else. I went to the same firm, but I needed to break out at some point. I didn’t yet know how, so it took me quite a few years. I was at Clifford Chance for almost seven years. 


LB: And then?

BW: I became an in-house lawyer. I worked a couple of years for a tech company, Global Fashion Group. One of my reasons for leaving Clifford Chance was that I had a sort of existential feeling. This was 2016, and startups were very hot. I felt that my generation was out there building companies, creating something out of nothing. And most of what I was doing, though I really enjoyed working for our clients, was working for big companies that were trying to stay where they were. Hence the first jump from Clifford Chance was to work for Global Fashion Group, which seemed to me the best of both worlds. 

LB: And was it all of that? 

BW: Yeah. It was also quite hairy and a little chaotic at times, but there were lots of opportunities to do things. I joined as they were just on the cusp of going through a big strategic rethink and reorganization. So what I really did for a few years was fundraising and M&A, shareholder agreements, the legal side of investor relations, that sort of stuff. Because the group was changing so much. You know that phrase “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”? I was the one-eyed man, a lawyer who’d done a lot of corporate work before. So I got to do more M&A in a couple of years than in the preceding years at Clifford Chance. 

LB: What made you move out of in-house?

BW: It happened gradually. I started Crafty Counsel as a side-hustle when I was still working as an in-house lawyer. The team at GFG was super, there were lots of things I really loved about that role, but at times it was a little bit lonely and isolated. There was the constant feeling of reinventing the wheel. I left Clifford Chance with this vast network of people I could call on for various expertise, but that started to degrade over time. And I thought: maybe there’s something interesting here. If I feel this way, then there might be others. I remember a couple of projects where I felt quite strongly, particularly after having found the right answer, that we spent our time figuring things out from first principles. If only I’d known “what you normally do”. I kept feeling there was probably another Ben, literally just around the corner, in a similar company, who I could have consulted. I could have asked: Has anyone done this in the last six months? And someone would have. 

LB: So true. The first thing I noticed, when I started speaking to in-house lawyers, was how lonely it can be, and secondly, looking around, how few resources there were. For every other discipline there are so many groups, blogs, and YouTube videos, but for the legal community Crafty Counsel was the only one we found. 

BW: I guess that’s the gap we’re trying to fill. It’s one of those classic stories of having felt the burden myself and creating something that I wish had existed when I was there. And that seems to resonate with the in-house lawyers in our community. 

LB: How did you get started when it was a side-hustle?

BW: The company took a bit of an alternative route. My original idea was to address the lack of community, knowledge, and resources through video content. I was going around telling people that this is Netflix for in-house lawyers. Just around the beginning of COVID, we launched a subscription service. We’d done enough to build a bit of a brand, a bit of a following, and a lot of in-house lawyers had very generously given their time to be in our content, but we hadn’t quite got the product right. We did a couple of online meetups and asked some of those early adopters what they really wanted from this, and the feedback was clear: We got it slightly the wrong way round. The content is great, but the really interesting thing for us is the community. The people you put in these video interviews, we just want to meet them. Is there a way you can get everyone together? So we started doing that. We turned those initial feedback sessions into meetup groups, one for in-house lawyers in startups, one for those in enterprise. The media content was always there, but we flipped it, so the media content is now the gateway into the community. The heart of it is bringing people together. 

At this point it has properly begun to drizzle. To the visible relief of my cameraman, we descend into The Lucky Pig cocktail bar. Its “art deco inspired decor” truly, as the internet promises, “evokes a treasured bygone era”. Having settled on our bar stools, I proceed to ask Ben about authentic communities, generative AI, and his vision for Crafty Counsel going forward. 

LB: I’ve been told Crafty is the best. Why do you think Crafty resonates so much? 

BW: It’s really kind that someone said that. I should say that there are other communities, and it’s great that lots of people are trying to solve this puzzle. I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier, about feeling a bit lonely and isolated, reinventing the wheel, and a latent concern about one’s network slowly degrading. So many in-house legal folks have shared that that’s how they feel. I think it helps that we’re now squarely set up to address that, which we try to do through joy, insight, and connection. That resonates. Particularly the word “joy” doesn’t get used much in the legal sector, but we think it’s important. We want people to take joy and delight in what they’re doing. 

LB: I really liked something you said at the last Crafty Fest, about trying to have people show up as their whole selves, leave the job persona at the door. 

BW: I think it’s super important. Something we really enjoyed at this year’s Crafty Fest was the session on passion projects. A former colleague of mine is now a published children’s author, as well as an in-house lawyer. So many people have other things going on in their lives. We had a trustee of charity, an entrepreneur, one person owned a liquor company, there were surprising sporting accomplishments. And it felt so important to provide a space where that could be shared. 

LB: You mentioned earlier that only a pretty thin slice of the community is actively looking to introduce gen AI tools into their teams. Why do you think that is?

BW: I think it’s representative of in-house legal’s approach to technology in general, a reflection of it being a really busy job. Technology and operational improvements struggle for air time with big strategic projects and the day-to-day. So getting the time to sharpen the axe rather than chopping down trees all the time is hard for most teams. 

LB: Do you feel like there is some anxiety around this new technology and what it means for their future, maybe in younger lawyers?

BW: A little bit, but not that much. I think one thing that often gets missed is the volume of work. Our minds naturally go to all the examples of efficiency that could be realised, how technology will cut down the number of lawyers needed. And I think that’s true. But the volume of work is harder to get your head around. Every economy continues to get busier and busier and throws off more work, registry change, deals…

LB: …and AI introduces so much complexity that lawyers have to deal with.

BW: Exactly. And the number of lawyers increases only incrementally in every country. So up until now I’ve never been all that surprised that there’s always been enough work for lawyers, because the work increases. 

LB: If you ask any in-house lawyer, it’s too much. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to support the community through this change?

BW: For sure. We do it in an ad hoc way at the moment, by making sure we get gen AI on the agenda at the right time, but in there with other topics. We do a lot of online meetups, and gen AI is quite often on the agenda. We’ve also been running a content series, interviewing in-house lawyers who’ve been grappling with AI. Ultimately we see ourselves as the platform. Our role is to provide a space for these conversations and showcase some interesting thinking and doing. We want to bring people together so they can help each other. The more we can provide that space, the more helpful our contribution will be. 

LB: What advice would you give someone just starting out? 

BW: I’d probably just say: Don’t panic, but be aware. If I had a relative or family friend who hitherto wanted and had good reasons for becoming a lawyer, and is now going to radically change their trajectory because of the introduction of gen AI, I’d think something has gone a bit awry there. But I would also recommend playing with this new technology. This is anecdotal, but I’ve actually seen very junior people way less curious about this than I would have expected. It’s quite easy to play with AI, so have the confidence to try it out and see what you come up with. 

LB: I feel like buying or implementing new software can be an exciting process, but in the legal sector people hate implementing technology. I’ve never spoken with so many people that have been scarred by this process. I think it’s partly because law is so complex, and implementing this technology can be such a long, arduous process, and you really only get one shot. In an in-house team, if you secure budget and it fails, you’re probably not going to secure budget again.

BW: 100%. People often have tricky implementations where they’re put out of their comfort zone. For a lot of lawyers, buying and implementing feels new, scary, even embarrassing, because often we’re the expert. Then we realise that we made a mistake, that this is not the right contract management system, and we’re a year into it. We should have asked these questions in the scoping process. All that can lead to a great sense of anxiety. And in-house lawyers often don’t like asking for money to do things. The risk of getting it wrong can be paralysing. 

LB: What’s your vision for Crafty Counsel going forward? 

BW: We want to bring joy, insight, and connection to our members, to help them grow their networks, to nurture their careers, and to engage more successfully with the wider ecosystem–to become better buyers and implementers of technology, for example, or better partners with law firms. I don’t think there’s any lawyer who doesn’t rely on others in an ecosystem to help them do what they do. So we’ll continue to scale up. The challenge will be to grow while keeping the intimacy. That’s the direction of travel. 

LB: Right now you’re in the UK. I know some people in Germany who at least know of you and have stopped by. Do you have plans to expand outside the UK?

BW: We do, actually. We’re planning a Crafty Fest Europe. Nothing’s set in stone, but Amsterdam is top of the list at the moment. We also started an initiative called Crafty Locals. Under Toby Hornet, our Head of Community’s leadership, we’ve empowered our in-house legal community to run their own affiliated mini events. They’ll be very informal, maybe three, four, or ten people going for coffee, a beer, or a walk. But there are so many. Over the course of the rest of 2024 there’ll be ones in Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Amsterdam. 

LB: When you see these mini events happen more irrespective of your doing…

BW: It’s really super to see. And I’ve joined a couple of them. My in-laws have a have a place in Yorkshire, so we were up there over the summer, and I popped in on the local meetup in York, just ten people having pizza. It was just great, really nice to see that happening. When people want to get the community together, if we can help promote it and do some of the heavy lifting around the administration of it, then we want to be there for them. 

By the time we emerge from the Lucky Pig cocktail bar, the streets of Fitzrovia are dark and puddled. It’s still raining, but my cameraman has sheltered his equipment in a protective case. We’re done for the day. We say our goodbyes and each head in a different direction, back to our largely unrecorded lives.