A Fuzzy Look Into The Future Of General Counsel
If the general counsel of the future could communicate with the general counsel of the present, what would they have to say about their jobs? Would they report that they are now handling billing at light speed? Taking a jetpack to the next board meeting? Replacing all of their outside counsel with hyperintelligent robots? It's hard to predict the future, but there are certainly ways to chart where the legal industry might be headed—and what that means for general counsel.
The Association of Corporate Counsel, a global bar association that represents more than 33,000 in-house attorneys, in partnership with the Georgetown University Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, has looked into the crystal ball to figure out what the general counsel of the future might need to think most about. The result is a report titled "Skills for the 21st Century General Counsel," which looks at the ways the job has changed over time and offers insight into where it might be going.
The report predicts that as the legal industry evolves, general counsel will be called on to move beyond their legal skill set and demonstrate increased business savvy and ability to think strategically for the benefit of the broader organization.
Amar Sarwal, vice president and chief legal strategist at ACC, told CorpCounsel.com, an affiliate of the Connecticut Law Tribune, that in the modern legal department, just because an attorney is adept at the technical aspects of lawyering does not mean that he or she will be a superlative general counsel. "Being a great lawyer doesn't make you rare," he said, adding that being a great lawyer is an essential part of the GC package, but it's not enough by itself.
The report drew input from a survey of 689 general counsel and chief legal officers, as well as 78 public company directors belonging to the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD). There were also interviews with a general counsel focus group and former GCs, board members, CEOs, legal futurists and executive recruiters from around the world.
To analyze the contours of the general counsel role, the report breaks it down into three parts: legal department leader, counselor-in-chief and strategist.
According to the report, in the law department leadership bucket, attending to the legal needs of the company is important, but may become less of a value driver for general counsel over time. It postulates that this could be because general counsel now see managing legal matters as a given in their jobs, and some are even delegating certain management duties elsewhere. Some 84 percent of GCs and CLOs surveyed said that these legal management duties are among the top three value drivers for general counsel today—but only 68 percent said they would still be as crucial in five to 10 years. Although the directors surveyed saw the management of legal needs as less important even in the present day, they also believed that the function would lose value down the road.
The counselor-in-chief role appears, based on the report, to be moving in a different direction—getting increasingly important, particularly as regulation and compliance requirements ratchet up potential for legal woes. Both directors and general counsel are taking notice of the shift. "Boards are right at the center of that storm," Sarwal said, explaining that this trend will continue to make GCs valued advisors to boards and upper-level management.
The report found that general counsel based outside the U.S. value the compliance advisory function in their jobs even more than those based domestically. Some 44 percent of GCs based internationally said that it's one of the top three ways they add value, compared to 33 percent of general counsel in the U.S.
Of the roles delineated in the report for general counsel, the one evolving the most appears to be that of strategist. Some 71 percent of general counsel said they believe that strategic decisionmaking will become a top three value-driver for legal department heads in the next five to 10 years. But the percentage of directors who believe this is lower—37 percent. "We believe the reason for that is the general counsel provides a strategic role inside the company, to the C-suite as opposed to the board directly," noted Sarwal.
The report provided some suggestions for GCs who want to become not just good legal strategists, but good business strategists as well. These included "seeing around the corner" to anticipate legal trends or issues that will impact the company and responding appropriately, as well as making suggestions to transform the legal department in ways that help it improve efficiency to the benefit of the company as a whole.
Sarwal explained that although the report is about general counsel and their jobs, this does not mean that others shouldn't read it as well. Outside counsel, he noted, would probably benefit from taking a look: "These are their clients," he emphasized.•