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The age of the lawyer

25 April 2017. Published by James Miller, Managing Partner

Earlier this month Legal Business published its fifth GC Powerlist UK. The intervening 12 months since the last edition have been some of the most seismic in living memory. This is my take – first published in the Powerlist – on some of the implications for General Counsel and in-house lawyers.

2016. The year that turned the world on its head. And when the world is spinning on that axis too, you can bet your bottom euro that good lawyers will be at the heart of the action.

It is also a safe wager that the lawyers featured in the pages of this year’s GC Powerlist are the ones who are best at navigating their organisations through what are now very unpredictable economic, social and political waters.

Lawyers from both in-house and private practice are in an enviable position right now, in the UK at least, to prove what they can contribute to the businesses they support.

Once very much the preserve of US corporates, the phenomenon of the lawyer as integral to the c-suite has become less of an oddity in the UK over the last five years. The more progressive, higherperforming general counsel (GCs) now occupy what is increasingly a business role – being the ‘general counsel’ and not just the ‘legal counsel’. Legal is still integral, of course, but business comes first. The pages of the GC Powerlist – not just this year, but every year since 2013 – bear testament to the fact that commercial awareness is now the number one requirement.

In fact, such are the particular demands placed upon GCs that we are arguably in a position where in-house is becoming a discrete subset of the legal profession. That is a whole other debate, but one I believe will increasingly be aired. In the meantime, there are some fairly significant issues for businesses on the horizon. But with issues for businesses come opportunities for lawyers.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is going to be very onerous, with legal having a pivotal role to play to make sure the core systems and processes match up to the massively-increased regulatory demands. Of course, the advent of GDPR is no surprise and the best of the best will have already been playing the game for a long time.

And then, of course, Brexit presents probably the most significant legalistic business issue in a generation. With article 50 likely to be triggered before this publication hits desks, the challenges for many companies – and the lawyers advising the boards of those companies – will become inescapable. And there is only one complete financial year left for all businesses to respond.

Of course, the best GCs are already fully in tune with the current and potential issues in their supply chain, their product and service catalogue, and their customer list, as well as in relation to their staff. And they are already hand in glove with the board, advising on how to ringfence, mitigate and hedge against exit risks.

The future
Throughout the four years of its existence, the GC Powerlist has tracked the trajectory of in-house lawyers. In that relatively short period, many have made the desired leap from "c-suite outsider" to being integral members of the top team. For those who have not yet bridged the gap, if ever there was an era for demonstrating your value as a business person first, then that era is now. The same goes for private practice: demonstrating genuine business acumen, understanding and long-term vision will be ever more essential.

So, how do we see the role of the in-house lawyer developing?

Well, undoubtedly, technology will become far more significant. In a world where all businesses’ focus on effciency is more acute, the pressure on lawyers – whether in-house or private practice – to look for smarter solutions, often delivered through tech, will only grow.

There is a risk here for law firms. Increasingly, commoditised work, once the preserve of law firms, is being done far more effciently through technology such as AI. That is a threat to traditional practices. But it is also an opportunity for forward-thinking advisers to take stock, reassess their relationships with their in-house clients and focus on delivering high-end business value.

Does technology spell the end of lawyers as some commentators have argued? No, not at all. Will it precipitate the evolution of a different kind of lawyer? Absolutely.

And for many – not least those included in the GC Powerlist – that evolution is already well advanced.

We are proud to have sponsored the GC Powerlist since its inception. It is the benchmark of quality and a reminder to private practice firms like ours that the expectation of our clients is only heading one way.

Congratulations to all those who have made the list.