The changing role of the in-house legal function

April 15, 2021

Within the legal community, especially during the course of the COVID-19 crisis,  there has been increased commentary on the changing nature of the role played by in-house counsel inside the businesses they serve. At the same time, those within these businesses are giving voice to their growing expectation that their In-house Lawyers should deliver more than pure legal expertise.

As a result, we have witnessed the role of today’s In-house Legal Counsel drastically change from being solely legal leaders to business enablers and a key part of the leadership team, with the events of COVID-19 pushing this further into the limelight.

In-house legal teams have moved beyond providing mere legal analysis or limiting their involvement to document drafting and negotiating to commercially savy, strategically-minded business leaders.

Historically, the role of the In-house Counsel was cut and dried and well understood. Legal was there to provide functional technical legal advice, oversee the finer points of governance, ethics, and compliance and administer the organisation’s policies and guidelines. And, where external counsel was required, the in-house lawyers would source and manage the necessary support.

Taking into consideration the numerous changes of today’s modern world, it can be said that the roles and responsibilities of  In-house Legal Counsels have been altered.

In-house Legal Counsel need to have a deep understanding of the business in which they work and need to partner with the business, understand its issues and produce viable and tangible solutions.

In many large organisations, the role of the General Counsel has been recast as Chief Legal Officer. This is more than just a change of job title. It’s an acknowledgement that the most senior In-house Lawyer is part of the C-suite. It recognises the expanded job description, increased responsibility and the complex challenges the role holder is taking on. It also reflects the strategic nature of the legal function and the contribution it makes to organisational growth.

Although the majority of in-house legal teams consist of anywhere between two and ten lawyers, many General Counsels are in effect sole practitioners, advising on matters ranging from routine contracts and transactions to business-critical strategic decisions and crisis management and are valued and recognised as more than just a legal function for the business.

The notion that an in-house legal team should function like an internal law firm is giving way to the idea that the corporate legal department is more of a commercial function, a function that drives economic value for the business.

Instead of having a deep understanding of one specific area, it’s important for in-house counsel to have a broad array of substantive legal knowledge. The strict regimes of the past are being replaced by more fluid structures, and In-house Lawyers are becoming more like business partners, that are embedded in and able to work across a variety of business units and specialisations.

As the needs of General Counsels change, we will continue to see corporate law departments in-sourcing more legal work, and employing more tools and technology, to deal with the ever-increasing volume and complexity of workload.

In-house legal teams are in a very unique position to make an impact in response to digitalisation both within their departments and for their organisations at large. Technology can also offer the in-house legal function a strategic opportunity to align itself more closely with the business it serves.

The role of the General Counsel is constantly changing. Business challenges are becoming more interdisciplinary and complex; technology is rapidly evolving, and the in-house legal team no longer simply provides advice, manages risk and ensures legal compliance, it must help guide the business through times of change and meet commercial objectives, whilst operating as a business enabler and an essential adviser to the board.

It’s both a significant challenge and a great opportunity, and one that the modern In-house General Counsel is well-placed to address.


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