General Counsel & The Future of the Profession

I had the pleasure of talking with Paul Williams of Major, Lindsey & Africa. Paul focuses his energies on placing lawyers as General Counsel of major corporations. From his perspective, he suggests that General Counsel today receive more respect. Of course, GCs today have a much larger budget for legal fees than ever before. And many GCs come from the ranks of major law firms. Coming from the elite law firms and handling such large sums of money, one would expect private lawyers to give the corporate lawyers more respect. Also, in many cases, GCs are increasing the size of their legal departments as one way to control legal costs … they can “purchase” the legal talent at wholesale (as an employee of the legal department) rather than retail (law firm associate or partner).

Following are some of my thoughts and conclusions drawn from my conversation with Paul. Not wanting to attribute words or ideas to Paul that he may not have intended, I will accept responsibility for the following conclusions that I reached from our conversation:

1.    Lawyers are risk averse, looking always at precedent. Consequently, one doesn’t see many lawyers working “outside the box” in the way they approach either their career or how they manage their practice. This may be why law firms are changing slowly; most change is forced on the law firm by their clients, Corporate America.

2.    Executive search firms such as Paul’s are “agents” that help lawyers move laterally from one firm to another. This raises the image of “free agency” in the sports world. If a lawyer can get a “few thousand dollars” more from law firm “B,” the lawyer may very well move from law firm “A.”

Why would a lawyer make such a move when the change in his/her compensation would not be deemed significant and certainly would not alter the life style of the lawyer. Compensation is almost like the stock price of a large corporation. Because the lawyer has always achieved at high levels, the lawyer may feel less valued than the lawyer who earns even a small amount more than the first lawyer. And this would suffice to change law firms. Because of this movement, however, the cultural differences that used to distinguish one firm from another are flattening … which means that one firm is looking more like other firms, with fewer differentiating characteristics than before. When one firm looks like others, there will be more difficulty in “branding” the firms … and less reason to engage one firm over another. Then, price may become the major differentiating factor for clients. Another result may be increased alcoholism, unhappiness and depression among lawyers who see very little reason to stay involved and engaged with his/her law firm.

3.    Whether law is a business or profession is an interesting question, though not so important in today’s world. In part, one’s answer depends on how you define “profession.” A professional, by at least one definition is one who collaborates. The current law practice is not so collaborative as before. We are now far more competitive and far less collaborative than ever. Does this make us less “professional”? More business-like? One of my clients recently told me how a senior partner refused to give him credit for his business origination success. If this firm were more collegial and collaborative, and less competitive internally, this would not even be discussed. Perhaps we are less professional, though not more business-like.

4.    Lawyers exist in a hierarchical law firm environment but are individually power-centric. They command the associates working on their matters, and the staff surrounding them. This is contrary to the client-centric attitude that GCs must have to survive and thrive within their corporate organization. Thus, many private law firm lawyers could not survive within the corporate environment.

5.    The “second season” for lawyers will be dramatic as more than 400,000 lawyers (“baby boomers”) will retire in the next 10 years. This is equivalent to the entire membership of the American Bar Association. What will these lawyers do? Will they sell their law practice? Will they close the doors and walk away? How will they engage themselves in their remaining time? Where will the replacement lawyers come from?

The legal profession has experienced many changes in the last 10 years since I obtained the trademark, The Business of Law®.  There will be many more changes in the next decade, for sure, as large law firms begin to mirror their large corporate clients more closely. And sole practitioners, the vast majority of the profession, strive to survive.

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