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In-House Counsel: Business Person First, Lawyer Second?

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on May 02, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If a study by NYSE Governance Services and BarkerGilmore is to be believed, then in-house counsel jobs are getting less cushy. A big percentage of directors and officers recently polled have noticed a tectonic shift in the role of the in-house lawyer.

There are pros and cons to this developing trend, of course. At least one con should be screaming at you, unless you think we've seen this all before.

This Used to Be Simpler

In-house counsel. The term once meant comfortable balance of life and work. It meant upper-middle class professional security and a reasonable level of ego brushing to boot with too much effort expended. No wonder so many grads looked to in-house as the prize of legal jobs.

But over time the role of in-house lawyer seems to have changed. According to a recent survey, the in-house lawyer is soon to be just as likely a consigliere to a corporate board of directors than he is the ethical voice in the company.

Why the Shift?

Everybody already hates lawyers, so why don't we just pile it on, shall we? Apparently, the reason for the change is rooted in the "rapidly escalating regulatory landscape and a growing wave of complex mergers and acquisitions."

Okay, that makes sense. You want to keep your friends close. And when laws get even more complex, it's good to have your lawyer handy.

Know Which Side Your Bread Is Buttered

The problem with this is actually made clear by the words of Marla Persky. She's the Senior VP, GC, and legal secretary for Boehringher Ingelheim USA. That's a lot of hats. In her opinion, today's landscape requires the in-house counselor to be a business person first, lawyer second. However, that runs contrary to what lawyers are supposed to be.

As lawyers take on more and more corporate responsibility, they become the client and expose themselves and the rest of the company to even greater legal liabilities -- many of them, we're sure, are issues of first impression. It makes perfect sense why companies would be willing to let their GCs so easily slip into their new roles as fellow corporate big-wigs, but it makes less ethical sense for attorneys to accept that trend as given. Sure, legal advice is the stated reason they're there, but every job has duties not listed.

This All Seems So Familiar

In the past, compliance issues for in-house attorneys were simple. You advised, you did your job, and that was that. But now, in-house lawyers might be called upon to advise in the role of a baby-CEO. And that, could tempt some attorneys to sidestep some laws to their eventual detriment and the company's.

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