Thursday, May 14, 2015
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.