Must the General Counsel be a lawyer?
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.