Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
For many in-house lawyers, the variety of matters that land on their desk can be daunting. Organisations bring on board in-house counsel to reduce external legal spend, and the expectation is that the in-house team has the necessary knowledge for each and every matter. The business wants a legal department that operates essentially as a full-service law firm, and the necessary expertise to match.
A new Special Report from Thomson Reuters, Navigating Unfamiliar Legal Ground: How corporate lawyers can deliver sound guidance as their remit expands, notes that not only has the role of the in-house lawyer evolved in recent years, but so too has their workload. Owing to disruptions in the legal profession and business at large, workloads have also expanded significantly, even though budgets have not. For the in-house counsel, it is no longer enough to simply be a good lawyer. To succeed in delivering value to the business, the in-house lawyer must be much more involved in the company’s core strategic initiatives and so dive much deeper into a broader range of work.
The Thomson Reuters 2021 State of Corporate Law Departments (SCLD) Report documented the following trends that are turning up the pressure on in-house counsel:
- Almost two-thirds (58 percent) of corporate law departments experienced increased workloads as a result of COVID-19.
- Almost one-third (29 percent) of law departments experienced budget cuts.
Given that controlling outside counsel costs regularly tops the list of legal departments’ priority lists—89 per cent of legal departments reported this as a top priority in the 2020 Legal Department Operations Index—it is perhaps no surprise that organisations are increasingly turning to their in-house legal teams to carry out more work than before.
Sara Catley, Senior Director, Practical Law notes in Navigating Unfamiliar Legal Ground, that in-house lawyers “quickly find themselves having to operate as a full-service law firm”. Catley goes on to say that in-house teams “need to be able to respond immediately to whatever happens to arise: a rumbling discrimination claim one day, tax on a contractor’s pay the next, then reviewing a commercial non-disclosure agreement…the list goes on and changes daily”.
Further insights from the Practical Law In-house editorial team highlight a myriad of complex developments that will affect in-house lawyers in the coming months. The commercial ramifications of COVID-19 are likely to continue beyond this year and will present many businesses with complex challenges, including the possibility of more disputes and perhaps even litigation. According to research in the 2021 SCLD Report, 40 percent of legal departments have implemented new safeguards aimed at preventing disputes in light of COVID-19. Keeping up-to-date with proposals and changing regulations aimed at tackling climate change will also play a huge role for in-house legal departments, as will the ongoing uncertainty around legislative and regulatory divergence as a result of Brexit.
The role of in-house counsel has evolved dramatically in recent years, and most legal departments play a central role in their organisations’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. This is unlikely to change any time soon as businesses continue to face increasing pressure from governments, regulators, investors and consumers to develop and maintain effective CSR policies. On these issues, the in-house lawyer is not merely concerned with compliance and governance, but also business strategy. Ensuring your organisation is doing the right thing and that it aligns with public perception will become increasingly important, and the legal department will continue to play a key role in that respect.
With an inbox as varied and complex as this, it is perhaps no surprise that the in-house lawyer is often referred to as a ‘jack of all trades’, but that doesn’t mean they are the ‘master of none’ as the saying goes—quite the opposite in fact. The in-house lawyer must be the expert generalist, able to navigate any area of law, whatever their specialisation or expertise. While that prospect may be a daunting, Catley notes that, with the right know-how solutions, “the idea of an in-house lawyer that knows everything and can confidently approach any legal task doesn’t sound quite so fanciful”.
Meeting every challenge
To quickly develop a solid foundational knowledge of unfamiliar legal terrain, in-house lawyers need access to dependable legal know-how and research tools. Catley emphasises this point: “Having a know-how and practical guidance solution means that the in-house team has more than just a colleague to talk over a tricky point or bounce ideas off; they have a whole team of experts who are just a click away”.
Of course, with budgets stretched, the temptation is to turn to free online resources. However, these are often unreliable, time-consuming to navigate and built upon sources that are not properly vetted or regularly updated. This is not legal research to build career success. Additionally, time spent researching is time spent away from tasks that add real value to your organisation’s bottom line.
With the right know-how solutions, corporate legal departments can build a foundation of understanding that enable you to ask the right questions, go straight to the answer, easily interpret the information, and quickly and confidently provide expert advice—leaving more time to be the strategic advisor that your organisation expects.