In-house legal departments have grown significantly in the last five to ten years. Recent analysis by the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority suggests that around 20 percent of practising certificate holders now work in-house compared to 14.3 percent in 2003.
In the meantime, general counsel and senior lawyers employed in businesses have become more prominent in those organisations, often taking on business tasks and sitting on boards. Inevitably, the increase in the overall numbers of in-house lawyers means that they are taking on ever greater amounts of the work traditionally undertaken by external private practice firms.
Businesses’ intense focus on costs over the last few years suggests that in-house lawyers have shown their worth when compared alongside external legal expenditure. In light of this favourable perception, there may be marginally less pressure for in-house lawyers to justify their existence as a mere ‘cost centre’ for the business but other expectations have grown at the same time.
A New Era Brings New Challenges for In-house Lawyers
Anyone considering a move in-house will no doubt view the evolution to the current environment as a particularly bright development for the image of in-house roles. However, despite a solid case having been made for the broad issue of cost savings, the challenge of adding value to a business— or being seen to add value to a business— still remains in more subtle ways. Central to that, there is often a need to overcome a disconnect between the corporate perception of the in-house lawyer and the lawyers’ perceptions of themselves.
Managing Internal Perceptions of the In-house Role
Anecdotally, it appears that only a minority of senior managers consider in-house lawyers as anything more than an impediment to the business’s core functions. Many in-house lawyers are therefore seen and treated as inhibiting business activities or merely preventing the commercial side of the business from acting contrary to statute or regulation. Naturally, in-house lawyers see their role as more constructive, enabling the commercial side to work with minimal legal disturbance; for example, by minimising disputes in employment issues or assisting with brand management.
Bridging this perception gap is likely to be the key to future success for ambitious in-house lawyers. This will come down to reforming the rudiments of the job and taking on work that stretches beyond simply risk management and management of external lawyers such as involvement in decision-making processes, strategic activities, mergers and acquisitions, or structuring investment products— all can help demonstrate value.