Legal Counsel has a new home – and it’s in-house

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“Nowadays legal counsel has evolved from having a quick legal question dealt with over the phone, to having a dedicated company lawyer sat within your management team”, says Stuart McKellar, Global HR Director at Braemar Shipping Services.

“When you add in-house legal counsel to your team, you are making a strategic decision to enable smoother growth and development of your business. In-house lawyers assist with important business decisions and planning as they understand the nuances and relationships of your business. CEOs find that adding a team member with a unique combination of legal knowledge and experience, helps the business improve its strategic execution and avoid unnecessary risks and liabilities. Having immediate access to a licensed lawyer who is 100 percent focused on your business is truly unbeatable, as having the right in-house lawyer can be the difference between success and failure on a given deal or legal challenge.”

How many times do we hear about the activities of certain businesses leaving an unpalatable taste in the mouth of consumers and other stakeholders, despite them complying with all that they are legally obliged to?

The fact is, quite a lot. When an organisation is questioned on issues like whether they are paying their ‘fair’ amount of tax, or whether they could be doing more from an environmental and sustainability perspective, it’s a clear signal that times have changed. Attitudes to businesses have changed; simply doing the bare minimum, or more precisely, only doing what they’re legally required to do, just won’t cut it anymore. When firms do what they’re legislated to do, it has been referred to as ‘acting within the law, but outside the spirit of it’, or turning a blind eye to what some see as the company’s wider corporate and social responsibilities. In other words, even though their mandatory responsibilities are taken care of, the court of public opinion now expects considerably more than just this.

Spotting the difference between what’s required, and what’s actually desired by a wider set of stakeholders, is a skill that can expose those lawyers who have traditionally been schooled in just the black and white – the do, or don’t do. Moral questions aren’t always elements they want to have a view on, but with brand success increasingly being about perception, CEOs and CFOs are initiating these conversations. When an organisations’ reputation is hard won, but easily lost, reputation is a risk more firms are feeling they must protect.

As a result, we’re seeing not just growth in interest, but growth in placements for one of our newest specialisms – an increasing demand for bringing the role of general counsel in-house.

Rather than having a retained practice lawyer who could be disconnected from the business, who delivers advice in a more advisory way, CFOs are shifting to having the need for counsel that is more immediate, more strategic, and has more of a commercial perspective. They want someone who knows the CEO, who can enter into a relationship of trust with them, and who they can confide in on all wider business matters.

The role of legal counsel in itself has evolved, branching out into areas such as data privacy, security, regulation enforcement, litigation, and risk and crisis management. Due to the expansion of their work, there is more of a need to have an internal resource.

As a recent report by Segal Coaching found [‘Eight Core Qualities of Successful General Counsel], the qualities this new breed of legal advisers require are as much about having an ‘understanding of the bigger picture’ (including being able to demonstrate good judgement; having humility; and taking on leadership roles), as they are about understanding the law. As quoted in a recent article by Korn Ferry, “The best-in-class general counsel is a fully functioning member of the senior leadership team who ‘just happens to be an attorney’.”

In summary, it surely makes sense for legal counsel to be brought within a business’s own four walls. It makes sense that the reputation custodians are embedded in the culture of the business, so they can make the best decisions possible. Eton Bridge Partners is already placing these highly competent people right now, and in the sorts of numbers that have recently seen us launch Legal Counsel specialism within our Board Practice. We believe in-house legal counsel is set to become the norm, rather than the exception. Are you ready to decide you need it too?