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In-House Lawyers of the Future

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So, it’s 2022. The world is in a strange place; we’ve had more “once-in-a-lifetime events” than you can poke a stick at. Happily, the in-house legal function endures. I’m no Nostradamus, but I think I can have a pretty good go at predicting what in-house legal will – and should – look like in the future.

From Blocker to Enabler

It’s trite, but in-house lawyers have a reputation for being blockers, rather than enablers of business. This is a less commonly held view now than it was ten or twenty years ago, but it does persist. This will change. Being a good technical lawyer is no longer enough to add real value. An appreciation of the commercial imperative will become increasingly important. Just as we lawyers aim to empower our colleagues with legal frameworks and precedents, in-house lawyers will be afforded more responsibility for establishing, negotiating and codifying appropriate commercial positions. In the telecoms world, lawyers often negotiate acceptable levels of interference and access to key infrastructure – these aren’t purely legal issues, but they are some of the core things half decent lawyers look for when reviewing certain contracts. Similarly, when negotiating SaaS agreements, good lawyers will think about the reason their company is looking to buy or sell a particular product; they will use their discretion to apply a discount or mark-up in particular areas. For example, service levels might be the domain of engineers, but good counsel will be able to form their own reasoned view as to whether or not they are sufficient.

In-house counsel will still be responsible for anticipating and mitigating risk, but a role more finely balanced between the legal and commercial is likely. More than this, once lawyers of the right inclination have served their time as specialists, it will become increasingly common for them to move away from the traditional legal role almost entirely. The move from lawyer to business development representative, consultant or some sort of hybrid will become more and more common.

Strategy Focused

In-house lawyers will move beyond day-to-day legal and commercial work to focus on business strategy and leadership. Even today, General Counsels often form part of the C-Suite. This will become a default position in the future. General Counsel and Chief Financial Officer positions are likely to be viewed in much the same way (if they aren’t already). Businesses will need to reflect the importance of the General Counsel by their distribution of internal equity, decision making power and visibility.

While it’s a well-established practice in the U.S. for in-house lawyers to take on roles like Chief Operations Officer, Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Executive Officer, this will become increasingly common in the U.K and rest of the world. Examples of lawyers who have made this move include Sean McGovern (AXA XL’s CEO), Cindy Rose (President of Microsoft, Western Europe) and Will Marwick (CEO of IFX Payments).

Technology and Process Improvement

Consulting on process improvement and the use of legal technology will be a key function of in-house lawyers. Lines between legal, strategy and procurement are likely to become more blurred than they already are. If a business needs a new way of procuring, contracting and organizing their processes, it’s likely lawyers will own the workstream. The best in-house lawyers will understand legal tech, the range of available tools and how they can best be applied to the peculiarities of their business. One of the most exciting things about legal tech is that it allows lawyers to be more than technical specialists. In-house lawyers of the future won’t only look at things like liability, force majeure and reasonableness, but also come to play a core role in how business is won. If used properly, legal tech has the potential to free up lawyers’ time for a wide range of value-add activities. The very best in-house lawyers will be technology and strategy consultants as much as they are legal eagles.

Competition for Talent 

As the value proposition of in-house lawyers becomes clearer – and their internal equity shoots up – the rewards they receive and paths open to them will increase. Companies that match or beat the compensation offered by private practice (think Google, Amazon, Facebook and some of the wealthier U.S. PLCs) are able to attract star lawyers that deliver exceptional value. This will become the standard position for the best performing and ambitious businesses.

The market for good lawyers is already hot, but this will only increase where in-house high performers are concerned. More and better legal tech will empower in-house lawyers to work flexibly and take on various assignments. For those uninterested in a traditional in-house career (which, let’s be clear, can be excellent), a new breed of lawyers that jumps from one in-house assignment to the other is likely to proliferate. For those adventurous enough to dive in, the future of the in-house lawyer looks promising.

Oliver Bridal

Oliver Bridal trained at CMS and is legal counsel for BAI Communications in London. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or via LinkedIn

 

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