How being a General Counsel has changed in recent history

Katie Cook


by Katie Cook


I recently wrote an article that considered the skills that are needed for being an effective General Counsel. Now let’s consider some of the ways the role and practice of General Counsel has changed over the last few decades of recent history.

  1. The General Counsel’s role is more global.  There is no denying the world is becoming more connected.  Many companies who only had operations in one country twenty years ago now have operations in several.  For a GC this means they could, like Alex Dimitrief General Counsel of General Electric, face a day where they are on the phone about a problem their company is facing in Asia while at the airport in New York about to fly to London. GCs now not only need to be across all legal issues there company is likely to face in their home countries but also be aware of those it may face in international contexts as well as developing cultural understanding for how these issues may be experienced in different locations.
  2. The GC’s role is one that is now more proactive rather than how it traditionally been seen as reactive.  Traditionally the role of General Counsel was seen as one to deal with legal crisis e.g. to come up with a game plan for defending a claim filed against the company and fulfill the required legal compliance obligations necessary for the running of the company.  Now the legal inhouse team is becoming more engaged with the executive arm of the company and developing proactive plans for adding value to the company rather than merely responding to legal threats.  For example, Mark Roellig in his interview with Legal Talk about being a General Counsel explained a scenario where the company for whom he worked at the time, US West, wanted to get into the cable business but were unable to do so due to legal reasons.  His legal team came up with a plan whereby they would argue their inability to use cable services was infringing their right to speak.  They won their case and the company was able to enter the cable business.  This fact that the General Counsel’s role is now more in line with that is also demonstrated by the fact that some General Counsel have even transitioned into the role of CEO in their companies.
  3. Legal teams are now leaner once again - According to Mark Roellig before the second half of the 20th century the inhouse team only consisted of about one lawyer and a company secretary. Where more legal expertise was required for a specific project the inhouse team would engage external counsel.  However later, there became a trend for companies to hire a larger team in the hope of reducing spend on external legal counsel.  Now there has been another shift back towards having a smaller team as companies have realized that sometimes it is best to hire external counsel where expertise on a particular type of law is needed.  However, companies are being strategic about when it is best to hire lawyers for inhouse and when it makes more sense to engage external counsel according to the specific needs - adopting a mix and match method for building teams.
  4. There is greater scrutiny over regulatory and compliance functions. The Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s led to the rewriting of many regulatory and compliance laws and regulations.  Regulators now have more powers than previously to conduct audits and investigate companies related to and for suspected breaches.  This increased surveillance had increased the workload for General Counsel for ensuring nothing falls through the cracks in this area.
  5. GCs now need to be tech savvy.  Technology has developed and is developing at a rapid pace.  There are many enterprise solutions out there which can be used for work performed routinely within an in house practice.  For example there are many eDiscovery software solutions, litigation practice solutions, contract management software solutions and legal practice solutions.  General Counsel need to be aware of the technology solutions on offer, what their practice’s needs are and know how to make strategic decisions on what technology needed,  what is the best value and which solutions will bring the largest return on investment.
  6. Data security is now an important issue for GCs. With advances in technology has come the digital age.  Material is no longer stored in hard copy but all digitally.  General Counsel need not only be aware of all relevant laws relating to data security but how to ensure that all confidential data held by a company is truly secure. This fact has become more evident recently with scenarios such as that related to the Panama Papers.
  7. GCs should know when to outsource work to Legal Process Outsourcing companies.  The combination of the world becoming more globalized and the advancement of technology especially in relation to communication has meant that there is a trend now for businesses to outsource legal process work to firms outside of the company in which they reside.  General Counsel need to be aware of the situations in which it would be appropriate for work to be outsourced and which are the best value legal process outsourcing firms with which to engage.
  8. The pace of the role of GC is now a lot faster. All of the above seven trends in relation to the role of GCl have led to the pace of work and the different variations of work coming across the desk of a GC has increased.  GCs need to be able to wear many hats and adapt quickly to changing and evolving situations.  The quickening pace has made the role of General Counsel more challenging but also more interesting and perhaps rewarding.

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So there you have some trends in relation to the role of General Counsel.  What are your thoughts? Are you a General Counsel?  How do you think this role has evolved over the last few decades or even over the last century?  What do you think this role will involve in the next decade?

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About the author

Katie Cook

Katie Cook

Katie Cook is Director of Marketing, Communications and Legal Standards at ContractRoom. Originally from the east coast of Australia, she has a background as an Attorney having practiced in both public and private practice in Brisbane and Melbourne. Katie completed studies in journalism and is now combining her legal and writing skill sets in her role.

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