Top in-house lawyers gather for roundtable discussion to talk about being a top in-house lawyer

So round-table panels are hardly infrequent when it comes to in-house lawyers, and they mostly cover the same sort of topic – billing, panel reviews, working with the board, and so on. GCRC even has its own panels talking about similar topics, though usually in reference to particular sectors, including sports and style as things stand. So you can often brush aside The Lawyer’s various roundtable discussions safe in the knowledge that there’ll plenty more saying similar things in the future. But when all of their nominations for this year’s much coveted ‘In-house Lawyer of the Year’ award (as decided by The Lawyer), you should probably take some notice – the discussion was of course sponsored by Thomson Reuters (read article here).

How much in-house lawyers read into these sorts of awards is probably another issue – for a roundtable discussion perhaps – but we let’s not doubt the integrity of these sorts of awards and take this particular discussion as being between a particularly interesting cohort of high-achieving in-house lawyers. With GCs from various sectors included, the discussion covered many of the usual topics but there were some interesting insights.

As to be expected, the most common concern for the nominees was of course managing the legal budget – each attested to having sleepless nights just thinking about it. The consensus in regard to do what to do about the budget was that sending work to external firms is actually a ‘drain on resources’, rather than an aid to them. Keeping work in-house keeps costs down, while all agreed that it is better to have a panel firm send in a lawyer on secondment as opposed to sending it out to an external consultant. Supposedly, this play forces firms to place ‘value added’ services into a higher priority spot in their pitch to clients.

As always with the external counsel debate, there is an acceptance that for certain projects it will be more helpful to have external counsel i.e. big disputes or multi-jurisdictional work. Yet in-house lawyers also believe that external counsel need to pay close attention to the import of such matters to the business, such that they best represent the values of the brand they might be working for.

Ultimately in-house lawyers actually want to keep the ‘meatiest deals’ to themselves.

“I feel sorry for people who have to watch the best work go out of the building,” one lawyer said.

But, most intriguingly about this particular roundtable, was the admission that GCs are often given the somewhat paradoxical situation whereby although the board want them to reduce legal spend, it is also board members that often want to push more work to external counsel. In this regard, in-house lawyers don’t just need to change their own habits and inclinations towards the in-house and out-of-house balance, but they also need to change the perception that their non-legal board members might have about how legal work should be managed.

Other than the usual budget discussion, the speakers talked the usual stirring stuff about in-house lawyers are becoming more central and important to the organisation. Take this introduction The Lawyer’s report for example:

“In-house lawyers are no longer the forgotten back office box-tickers they once were, next-generation general counsel are masters of the boardroom. Dynamic, often young, and surprisingly good-humoured, considering they’re also corporate’s front line defence for every legal, reputational and cyber threat going.”

Lovely.

Intriguingly, the in-house satisfying Michael Ellis’ apparently massive ego. The in-house lawyer at Abercrombie & Kent said, “The legal department is me and my large ego”. More endearingly he said that his job is akin to being given the keys to a pick ‘n’ mix shop but he’s forced to eat all the sweets, including the sour ones. Definitely one of our favourite descriptions of the in-house role in recent years.

About William Barns-Graham

William is the content manager and head of communications at GC Research Club. He is a professional journalist, researcher and strategist. He has worked at GC Research Club since February 2013 and has rapidly become a distinguished voice in the in-house legal blogging community, writing on Lexis Nexis and interviewing leading legal thinkers and writers, in house lawyers and CEOs within the legal tech world. He has also coordinated the GCRC Sports Panel series.
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