We sat down for a short Q&A with McKinsey’s General Counsel, Pierre Gentin, and dove into his perspective on a range of topics, including thoughts on the law, the cutting-edge work that McKinsey Legal drives, using culture to meaningfully fuel innovation, well-being as a skill, and living a multi-dimensional, fulfilling life. For good measure, we also touched on some fodder around ukuleles and airplanes. Read the full interview below.
Question: You joined McKinsey as general counsel nearly three years ago. If there were one overarching aspiration you have for McKinsey’s legal department, what would it be?
Answer: My aspiration is for McKinsey Legal to be the premier in-house legal department of any company in the world. To achieve that, we have to be willing to redefine the profession of in-house lawyering to drive a different model of client service, protect our firm, and bring strategic thought partnership to our internal clients. Think of it as solution enablement that will stand the test of time. I believe that’s what McKinsey deserves and we should be mindful of that aspiration every day.
Question: There's a famous saying in the legal profession: if you couldn’t be a musician, actor, athlete—and the list goes on—then be a lawyer for that profession instead. Does that resonate with you at all?
Answer: It doesn’t resonate with me because I don’t view being a lawyer as someone who wanted to be something else, but couldn’t. Done right, the law is a multifaceted discipline that integrates an unrivaled set of professional and interpersonal dimensions. Professionally, we are strategists, counselors, innovators, risk managers, technicians, experts, empathetic advisors, mentors, business people, and so much more. Alongside our lawyering, we are musicians, teachers, volunteers, people committed to our families and communities, and so much more! So I don’t view our role as lawyers as “second to” something else at all.
Question: Fair enough and well said! Switching gears a bit: in many ways, McKinsey feels synonymous with innovation. Our teams are constantly looking around the corner and working with edgy, emerging tech and finding solutions to uncharted problems. Like an idea factory at the cutting edge, innovation and creativity are a constant here. There’s an interesting TED talk where Ethan Hawke talks beautifully about the genesis and power of creativity. He says, “Art's not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance,” in speaking to the power of art and its impact on our broader creative flow. As a musician (who's known to share an acoustic set in meetings, if we’re lucky), how does that resonate with you?
Answer: That resonates with me a lot. The humanities and creative arts can absolutely play a meaningful role in helping us solve business problems. George Harrison once said: “Since our problems have been of our own creation, they also can be overcome.” There’s a lot of truth in that. We can put our minds to developing solutions to problems and challenges—many of which originate in the limitations of our own thinking—and the solution enablement is often easier if we tap into the wisdom and inspiration of human traditions: philosophy, literature, music, and more.
Question: And to that very point—wisdom and human tradition—McKinsey has written quite a bit on the importance of prioritizing well-being; particularly in viewing "well-being" as a skill—a message that our leaders proudly champion. How do you think about well-being in the legal profession? Its priority and trajectory? How can we crowdsource thinking around this to move the needle forward for the legal profession, and what do you think we do well here at McKinsey that others can learn from?
Answer: The law is a very demanding profession. We’ve seen, over the past few decades, how the pressures of commercialism and consolidation in the law firm sector have frequently had a negative impact on longstanding professional norms. The ABA Journal has described how the well-being of lawyers has suffered and we’ve seen that in the form of depression, suicide, substance abuse, and other mental illness challenges among lawyers. And this is not even to mention the many who leave the law because of its adverse effects on family life and well-being. It’s not a simple issue, and COVID-19 has made it that much more complex. But I do believe we have to confront the topic of well-being in the law openly, reengage with the core value of basic decency in how we treat each other as legal professionals, and consider how our organizations can embrace well-being as a virtue and a skill. I am very proud of the culture we’ve created in McKinsey Legal: a deeply connected group of premier professionals who trust and rely on each other as colleagues and friends.
Question: As organizations try to tackle this point, we’ve heard quite a bit about concepts like work-life balance, work-life integration, and other ambitious terms in this space. And there’s research showing that younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z are focused on pursuing purpose and quality of life over putting in long hours where they find little meaning (even where the financial reward may be high). What’s your perspective on living fully? How does that reflect in the path you’ve chosen in your career, and what advice would you share with other lawyers, whether just coming up the ranks or more senior?
Answer: The search for personal and professional fulfillment is basic to human experience and is highly subjective. There’s no one answer, in my view. I think many of us try to live multifaceted lives that combine, for example, spiritual goals, finding joy through human contact and creative activity, professional fulfillment, the wonderment of family, intellectual stimulation, financial reward, and the contribution to community and society. What you or I choose to prioritize is highly individualistic and will certainly differ. But to build an integrated and multidimensional life is complex and takes hard work and commitment. And one always wrestles with the tradeoffs. As a religious Jew, I feel overwhelmingly blessed by the life I lead. I’m filled with gratitude.
Question: On living a multidimensional life and those who do it well: for you, when you meet with someone who impresses you at McKinsey or in your professional life more broadly, what captivates you most? Which qualities in people tend to inspire you?
Answer: Traits that may seem paradoxical together but that you certainly find in people. Modesty and boldness. Kindness to others and self-confidence. Quiet commitment and conviction. Sound analytical thinking and unconventional creativity. A sense of humor and curiosity. Passion and not taking oneself too seriously, and anyone who teaches me something really worthwhile or says something particularly memorable.
Question: Jumping over to industry trends: we’ve seen technology companies over the years approach innovation differently. Some have required mandatory percentages of employee time dedicated solely to innovation, where that’s all they should do, with the goal of uncovering that “next great thing” and leaving dedicated space to generate creative input with the goal of finding exceptional innovation as output. If you had three mandatory days each month where you had to do something other than your everyday work at McKinsey, something that would inspire innovation, what would you do?
Answer: I’d love to have more time to study Jewish texts, spend more time in Israel, play more guitar and piano, and I have a few book ideas in mind (essays, poetry). My wife is a wonderful novelist, so I’d like to follow in her footsteps with a book or two of my own.
Question: And staying on the emerging tech theme, we’re living in a time where the law tends to trail technology. How do you think about the role of counsel who provides guidance, where the broader context of the guidance—the legal and regulatory space—is a bit of a sandbox in terms of consistent precedent? How can we think about advising confidently in an ever-changing legal and technological landscape?
Answer: One amazing aspect of our profession is that we are always proactively learning; it’s the practice of law, after all. And since we’re living in a time of fast-moving technology, lawyers have to pivot their focus to where the law is racing to catch up to business. We need to embrace the future of innovation even as we remain grounded, as lawyers, in our ethical obligations, precedents, and the particular factual context.
Question: Thank you for your wisdom and reflections. To close, let’s play a game: classic word association. I’ll say a word and you mention the first response that comes to mind for you. We’ll indulge a bit of randomness in the spirit of openness and get to know you better.
- Podium: Speaker
- Author: Wife
- Ukulele: Hawaii
- New York City: Hometown
- Airplane: Travel
- Wine glass: Bordeaux
- Poetry: Berryman
- Skyscraper: New York
- Coffee Beans: Morning
- Zoom: Enough