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Must the General Counsel be a lawyer?

June 9, 2015

At a recent meeting of General Counsel, the question was asked “In the future, will the General Counsel need to be a lawyer?”

While only a few answered in the negative, it was interesting that there was no impassioned defense of the need for lawyers to hold the role. And indeed, given broader trends in business, it seems wise for the legal community to consider this possibility and the reasons behind it.

It is increasingly the case that heads of function are not drawn from within that function. They are often selected for their business talents and the drive for their appointment may be to bring reform to a specialist group that is not delivering the right value. But they may also be put in place to act as a more effective conduit between the functional specialists and the broader business – ensuring that in-depth professional knowledge is evaluated and communicated in ways that are practical.

The in-house legal department was often established as an alternative to using outside lawyers. As such, it often acted in a quasi-independent role, with the belief that it should not get too close to the business in case this influenced its objectivity. For many reasons, that thinking is under increasing pressure and lawyers are not quite as special as they once were. Indeed, the same pressures are evident in law firms, where a growing number of non-lawyers increasingly add significant value and, in leading jurisdictions, the need for law firms to be owned by lawyers is fast eroding or under challenge.

There are certainly already instances where the General Counsel may not be admitted within the jurisdiction where they are based. It seems only a matter of time before in-house legal groups start to appoint the best person for the job – and that job may not require them to be legally qualified.


  1. Eugene P. Grace permalink

    I would respectfully suggest that you check the rules of Court or statutes regarding the unauthorized practice of the law. Many corporations have the Legal Department reporting to a high level executive other than the CEO. I think that is what you are suggesting.

    • Eugene
      As with other restrictive practices, these rules are increasingly being questioned and the protected position of professions appears increasingly a thing of the past.

      But more generally, I am sure many lawyers aspire to positions of status based on their talents and contribution, not because of status conferred by ‘rules or statutes’.

      • Eugene P. Grace permalink

        TCummins, Thank you for your reply. I look forward to the evolution of the law in this regard. I note, however, that the legal principles regarding the unauthorized practice of the law were intended to protect consumers of legal services, and the public more broadly, from persons misrepresenting themselves as attorneys. This is a matter of consumer protection. As mentioned previously, the General Counsel or other lead attorney probably already reports to a more senior business executive who focuses on the profit and loss of the corporate legal unit.

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