Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Future of Respectability for Lawyers (Part 1)

I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to post!  I have been following this blog for some time with great interest.  I hope to bring a third perspective—not as an academic, nor a private firm practitioner, but as an employee of a company who happens to be a lawyer. 

A few weeks back, Professor Heminway posted, and I commented, on the difficulty good law students have in finding jobs.  I made the point that the law is in a state of transition—firms are becoming smaller, but more opportunities are arising within corporate models.  Over the past 20 or so years, attorneys have gradually become more integrated in the corporate world, and we have seen the number of positions with firms gradually decline in comparison.  

As part of this mainstreaming of lawyers into the business model, lawyers are becoming more and more part of business teams, not walled-off in legal departments.*  By incorporating lawyers into operational divisions, have businesses “humanized” lawyers, making them more accepted and respected?  Will this growing engagement and familiarity, with lawyers as co-workers in the business environment, lead to greater opportunities for all lawyers, including those in private practice?  The answer is, maybe, possibly.  It’s complicated.  Allow me to explain.

Let’s be clear—external counsel are respected for their pure legal skill, or otherwise, businesses wouldn’t hire them!  However, business leaders often view external counsel with some trepidation, as engaging them could result in great cost and perceived “rolling roadblocks” of legal reasons things cannot done. Additionally, while lawyers and business leaders work in parallel, their goals do not exactly align. Law firms are for-profit organizations, after all, and have their own operating concerns. Nevertheless, businesses value the private law firm stamp of approval on the company’s work product for many reasons. 

Most businesses (I believe, and from what I have seen) initially began onboarding lawyers not to deepen the bench of their overall business talent, but simply to lower costs tied to legal spending for basic legal services.  An excellent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review by Professors Robert C. Bird and David Orozco outlines the progression for effective use of internal counsel, and I’ll return to some specific discussion of that in later posts.  But I think the article accurately reflects the continuum for integration of lawyers, and most companies are somewhere around the early “avoidance” or “compliance” stages for use and understanding of internal lawyers.

However, as businesses advance in their view of legal assistance and business models incorporate lawyers as part of their entrepreneurial focus at the highest levels, I think their lawyers are on the path to becoming valued in a way that is impossible for private practice attorneys.  Rather than the (unfair or not) stereotypical view of self-serving or disinterested firm lawyers some business leaders may have dealt with in the past, will these same leaders that work daily with lawyers integrated into their corporate teams grow to appreciate and respect them more, since their talent and loyalty to the companies’ interests is paramount? Will this eventually lead to a shift as to societal viewpoints about lawyers, as they become more familiar and helpful personas around everyday workplaces? And in turn, will the law firms become more generally appreciated and respected (and less commoditized!), as this growing force of in-house attorneys bridge the communication gaps with external counsel, thus increasing trust levels between the entities?

Maybe business leaders, who have historically been at odds with their law firms to some degree, will actually be the force (perhaps initially, quite inadvertently) that saves the legal profession from potentially destructive isolation and gives greater hope to aspiring law students.  This interim period—as the prevalence of the private firms lessens and corporate legal strategy grows—may be difficult for all involved.  More thoughts on this soon.

--Marcos Antonio Mendoza


*Depending on the organization, direct control of such lawyers may or may not remain in the general counsel’s office.

Corporations, Jobs | Permalink



I'm looking forward to your posts. One issue I hope you may address: traditionally, in -house departments have hired lawyers who have worked for at least a few years in firms, usually good-sized firms. The firms thus provided much of the early years' training for future in-house counsel. That model is becoming more tenuous as those firm jobs become more rare. Are you seeing in-house departments hiring more any lawyers right out of law school now? Do you think they should be doing more of that? What is the path nowadays for student who want to wind up in-house? I suspect these questions are of interest to many readers of this blog.

Posted by: Brett McDonnell | May 14, 2015 8:02:59 AM

Brett McDonnell—Excellent questions!! I will incorporate my thoughts on them in my next post, which will deal with my perception of the current state of legal hiring and progression. But as you have noted, the old model of “new lawyer to firm to in-house counsel” is starting to become untenable for a variety of reasons, which I’ll discuss. Whether firms or corporations recognize this, and if so, how they deal with it, will be the subject of my next post. But the key will be how corporations react...and I think I am seeing the trend.


Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 14, 2015 8:52:32 AM

Many thanks for joining us. Enjoyed this post and looking forward to the others.

Some anecdotal evidence from advising law students. I have had a few students who passed the bar exam, but took typical entry level jobs at companies (e.g., in marketing or finance). A few were able to help out the legal or compliance departments of their companies. And a few were eventually transferred to the legal side full-time.

Wouldn't work for everyone, just an interesting path. Also, some of the grads really enjoyed their non-lawyer jobs and stayed. Frankly, some of these business jobs are much better jobs than some of the legal jobs available.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | May 14, 2015 10:16:36 AM

Marcos, thank you for mentioning my article, co-authored with Prof. Robert Bird. I look forward to learning more by reading your insights on the dynamics of the changing legal profession.

Posted by: David Orozco | May 14, 2015 10:47:29 AM

Haskell--thanks much! I appreciate the invite.

David--your research with Prof. Bird was the most intriguing I had seen on the subject, and I thought my observations would be helpful to the discussion. I sincerely appreciate your scholarly contributions, as I think they are on the forefront of this discussion!

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 14, 2015 11:13:30 AM

Of interest:

Posted by: Ann Lipton | May 18, 2015 2:39:38 PM

Thanks Ann! A very timely article mentioned in the suggested posting. I find interesting the characterization that in-house attorneys are "stealing" law firms' business. After all, it is the corporation's business/work to begin with, isn't it? Perhaps part of the discussion will need to involve these sorts of attitudes/approaches.

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | May 19, 2015 5:09:05 AM

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