Power within UK legal system

In-house lawyers in the UK are the best in the world. No other sector of the legal profession delivers more value to business, more consistently and more innovatively than in-house lawyers, and the general counsel who lead the in-house teams are some of the world’s most entrepreneurial and thoughtful leaders of lawyers.

The United States is often held up as the exemplar for in-house practice, but the US legal market is less innovative and more restricted; law firms are more powerful and companies more cautious. Elsewhere in Europe, and further afield in Africa and Asia, the in-house role is less well understood; it is often still maturing and in some countries not recognised by the local Law Society and Bar.

The UK Law Society fully recognises the value and importance of the profession’s in-house community. The legal market here is also highly developed and a world centre. UK-based companies who employ in-house lawyers can recruit from the best firms in the world and the lawyers, who rise to the top in these companies, combine great legal skills, commercial agility, leadership credentials and business acumen.

The role of the in-house lawyer has never been more important or the talent more impressive. In recent years, the world’s largest organisations have strengthened their in-house teams, recruiting some of the profession’s leading names. However there is so much more that needs to be done.

In the UK, general counsel face the difficult challenge of making a once-in-a-generation shift that will change the profession for ever

Most city law firms, notwithstanding their impressive glass towers and global presence, are stuck with a largely outdated service delivery and pricing model. The top firms may be full of brilliant minds but, for the most part, law firms frustrate. They are machines built to make money for partners and only reluctantly invest in innovation or diversification. In-house teams, therefore, have to become more demanding. But this is not about posturing for lower fees (leave this to procurement professionals); it is about partnering with key legal services suppliers to drive long-term innovation and sustainable change.

Only the general counsel can fully appreciate what a business needs from lawyers, how legal services should be developed, how risk management strategies and processes should filter and facilitate business decisions, and how competitive advantage requires the fluid combination of accessibility, speed, judgement and wisdom.

The challenge for general counsel in the UK is, therefore, not the challenge of many in-house lawyers around the world. Here they do not have to fight for a voice or to be seen as independent or face being chronically under-resourced for the risks their businesses run. In the UK, general counsel face the difficult challenge of making a once-in-a-generation shift that will change the profession for ever and have repercussions for legal services around the world.

Businesses need legal services that are designed to make business better, not lawyers richer. This means legal services, including advice, knowhow, training, tools, systems and processes, that are available when needed, in a format and through channels that best suit each situation, and at a price that is proportionate, transparent, reasonable and value for money.

This will not be achieved by posturing for change or asserting demands like a child in a toy shop. General counsel have to step up and change the game; they have to work closely with their chosen law firms, insist that all self-interest is put aside and commit to a two to three-year programme of investment in systems, processes and people. In effect, they need to build partnerships that ensure the best of what in-house teams offer is seamlessly configured with the best of what law firms offer.

According to the Law Society, there are 11,000 in-house solicitors working in commercial and industrial organisations in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in local government. There are around 80,000 lawyers in private practice. So nearly 20 per cent of the profession is not in private practice. If one in five lawyers are in in-house roles, this means they are not just a significant constituency of legal advisers in their own right but, because they largely appoint the law firms their companies use, they are also the biggest purchasers of legal services.

The time has come for general counsel to be the architects of new services and new models for the delivery of those services, not the tenants in a world built by the law firms.

Given the excellent standing of senior lawyers in the most important in-house roles, this generation of general counsel carries the responsibility to help build a future that is good for business and the long-term sustainability of the legal profession.