Wednesday, May 27, 2015
In my first post of this series, I asked whether business leaders had unknowingly provided the legal industry with a long-term solution to declining interest in the legal profession and potential waning influence. I suggested that business leaders may be the driving force that ends up saving the legal profession. In my second and third posts, I discussed the current state of in-house attorneys and law firms. Today is my birthday, so it is a great present to be able to share my view on the future of the legal profession, and how shifts may occur.
Eventually, corporations can (and most probably will, in my view) evolve their thinking about “legal strategies” (as Professors Bird and Orozco suggest) to the point that lawyers are essential resources in developing sophisticated corporate planning. In order for this evolution to take place throughout the business world to any great degree, it will take time, experience, and success with the legal strategy concepts. In other words, lawyers must become valuable not only for their legal skills, but also because they have inherent business talent resulting from advanced training.
If this conversion is to occur, companies will initially be forced to buy senior legal talent they will need to begin this transformation. This means attorneys with specific experience, usually from private firms or perhaps governmental entities, should begin moving towards corporate employment. Companies will likely change their legal strategies from a rigid general counsel structure to include “Chief Legal Strategists,” as Bird and Orozco have posited, in order to accommodate this movement. If accepted by business leaders, this should increase in-house counsels’ opportunities for engagement with the business units. If so, corporate budgets likely will be increased to entice very talented firm lawyers to transition more regularly to companies.
Because of their skill and expertise, and with the increasing trust of corporate leaders, these very same senior lawyers can then begin the legacy process of hiring established mid-career lawyers and use their growing corporate influence to replicate the success of their own tenure. If corporations begin to fill their ranks with qualified and active counsel, business leaders will be more able to recognize real legal talent, both in hiring and promotion.* Eventually, this environment may allow newly minted graduates to be directly hired into the company. Because these new hires should have mentorship and support from more senior lawyers, their chances for individual acceptance and success in the corporate setting should increase. As this occurs, corporations may be able to build legal departments that rival firms in social and economic attractiveness, as well as career opportunity.**
Assuming companies increase their endorsement of legal strategy, with the attendant hiring of more attorneys in-house, difficulties in communication between corporations and their outside law firms should diminish substantially. With in-house attorneys having the confidence of their senior leadership and the knowledge of their businesses, they can foster enhanced dialogue with external counsel that might not have been possible in the past. This can alleviate corporate trust concerns about law firm billing and perceived value (since in-house lawyers can act as an interpretive engine), allowing firms closer ties with their clients through greater understanding. This in turn may actually increase work for the private law firms that survive the initial diminishment of legal work and lead to more private practice opportunities for new graduates, along with some firm positions that open due to lawyers moving to corporations.
As the legal landscape changes, the legal profession will, with the help of business leaders, become a broader, more inclusive, and more “respectable” profession—one that becomes pervasive and accepted throughout the business world, and not as insulated in private firms. This familiarity will not breed contempt, but respect and appreciation, and it should benefit all. When this will happen, I cannot tell you. But sooner, rather than later, it is bound to happen.
So, what can law schools and current lawyers do to help in this transition? Well, I have some thoughts on that as well. More here anon, same “Bat-Channel”...
--Marcos Antonio Mendoza
*Whether the business leaders will be able to hone and execute on this increased ability to recognize and incorporate this legal talent, no one can say for sure. It will be a necessary factor in the success of this transformation of the legal environment, and one that should occur. If not, the corporations will simply go through endless cycles of in-house counsel that will likely be underutilized.
**I recognize that many companies have already built large legal divisions, and some companies have extremely talented lawyers. But, for most businesses, in-house departments have yet to rival the talent, the opportunities for skill building, the ability to train, and the financial rewards, that most private law firms have.