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The Role of the Lawyer: A Growing Focus on Contract Management

July 1, 2013

The legal profession faces dynamic change. Over the next few years, the role of the lawyer is going to look very different from today.

In many respects, the legal profession has managed to resist the transformation affecting other professions for a remarkably long time. The impacts of technology on fields such as medicine or engineering have been far more dramatic. Yet as I wrote in my previous blog, much of the basic work of a lawyer can now be undertaken far cheaper and on an outsourced basis. forcing a re-think of many services. Compound that with demands for increasingly global intelligence plus the general disquiet over the level of fees and salaries, and you have irresistible pressure for change.

This pressure seems to be reflected in the announcement last week by US law-firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges (one of the top 20 in the US) that it is eliminating many of its junior lawyers and support staff and cutting pay for ‘under-performing partners’.

Among the many shifts that appear to be on the cards for the legal profession is the rapid erosion of the partner-model law firm and also increased integration with other professions, such as accountants, to offer a more coherent business service. But with so many law students still pouring out of universities and law schools, other changes appear inevitable. One of these is the likely move by many trained lawyers into the field of contract and commercial management – which is for many businesses a growing area of recruitment.

Today, legal training does not equip lawyers for this role, though of course their knowledge has some direct application. And since few universities produce qualified contract or commercial graduates, it is a natural home for a lawyer. Indeed, with contract management increasingly reporting to the in-house law department, there is a natural tendency to recruit qualified lawyers to the role.

In addition, law schools are waking up to the fact that they must expand their body of training and equip graduates to enter the world of business. With entry level jobs disappearing at an alarming rate, the need for action is urgent.

For IACCM, a consequence has been rapid growth of interest in our work from both law firms and law schools. Research, case studies and the underlying ‘body of knowledge’ that we have developed are suddenly very relevant for both new course content and new chargeable services. There is also increased uptake of our Managed Learning and certification program as lawyers seek a fast-path route to expanding their commercial competence.

Interesting trends indeed; but perhaps somewhat frightening for the largely unqualified, uncertified body of contract and commercial managers currently in business. Suddenly they face a whole new breed of competitors for their jobs.

5 Comments
  1. “rapid erosion of the partner-model law firm and also increased integration with other professions, such as accountants, to offer a more coherent business service”

    In order for this to occur in the U.S., there would have to be modification of ethical rules by the state bar associations as lawyers and non-lawyers are still unable to share fees as is the case outside the U.S.

  2. Shalas Benson permalink

    This shift of many lawyers from traditional law firm attorney roles to contract manager, negotiator or procurement roles may be more apparent in recent years due to the economic downturn. However, as a lawyer who ditched the traditional law firm track many years ago in favor of a more practical , enjoyable and more lucrative contract and business management role in a major corporation, I know that the shift is not new. Many attorneys currently serve in these roles. It is just more obvious now. With the increase in business speed, the need of business leaders for immediate contract interpretations, issue resolution and creative problem-solving, they won’t wait for an appointment next week with legal counsel. Instead, many business executives choose to include well-trained attorneys in contract manager roles. Working closely with corporate in-house legal departments, the attorney contract managers can gain credibility quickly based on the quality of deliverables produced for legal counsel review and approval.
    An issue many attorneys have to deal with both professionally and personally when moving from a law firm to a contract manager role in a corporation is the perception by some in the legal community that the attorney turned contract manager just couldn’t make it in the real world law firm environment. However, as attorneys in corporate legal offices quickly learn, not only are the contract managers well equipped to understand legal risks and issues in contracts, but also ,because they work “in the business” the contract managers have a solid understanding of the practical operational and business impacts of language included in agreements. In a way, the contract managers may identify issues more critical to the business than their colleagues in the legal department.
    For those non-attorney contract managers who fear losing job opportunities to attorneys, take heart. Having hired and trained many attorney and non-attorney contract managers, it is not always the former attorneys who make the best contract managers. In fact, for attorneys to be good contract managers, they have to remove some legal issue blinders to work effectively. Often former attorneys get stuck in a rut by focusing on traditional legal terms and conditions such as IP issues, indemnities, warranties and limitation of liabilities miss major issues in other documents included in the agreement that are of greater import to the business. Because the attorney contract manager may consider “business” and “technical” documents to be just add on exhibits to the terms and conditions in the agreement, they may not understand the importance of reviewing -SOWs, SLAs, pricing exhibits and transition plans. More often than not, it is is in those exhibits that business disputes arise. (In fact, I’ve never heard two business people argue over the terms of an indemnity clause! )
    If you are a non-attorney contract manager who has been working “in the business” for some time, don’t sell yourself short. When applying for new contract management jobs, it may be to your advantage to ask the potential employer if he or she intends to test the skills of applicants by giving them sample contract documents, including exhibits to review and redline before a hiring decision is made. If so, welcome the opportunity to complete the review and redline. If you have practical experience, it will show. In contrast, young inexperienced attorneys may miss critical issues entirely.

  3. Shalas, thanks for this – and the various other comments you have made to other blogs. It is great to have your detailed confirmation of these points. You are of course quite right that many existing contract managers have a background like yours. I think a danger (which you allude to) is that it will become seen as an alternative career for lawyers and that this could limit the breadth of understanding that is necessary to good performance – and which you so clearly articulate in your comments.

    Tim

  4. Ppin permalink

    As an attorney trying that recently transitioned into the contracts management world, this was a great piece to read. I left the traditional law firm model because I wanted to delve deeper into the day-to-day operations behind a business, but faced the same negative perception outlined by Shalas. I’ve also seen a lot of hesitation from employers about hiring attorneys for contract management roles. I think there’s a fear that attorneys will jump ship to a counsel position after a year or two of experience. It will be interesting to see how the landscape of the legal market will change in the next few years.

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