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What will the future of in-house counsel look like?

As social attitudes change and citizens expect corporations to provide more than just shareholder value, in-house counsel are primed to be at the forefront of this evolution, a lawyer says.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 27 February 2024 Corporate Counsel
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Ahead of her keynote session at the Corporate Counsel Summit 2024, a global technology company’s senior legal counsel, Mel Storey, said she believes that changing social attitudes will affect businesses and the role of their in-house counsel teams.

“We have always acted as the moral compass of a company. We have brought in our skills in ethics and reason and applied that with logic to our decision making,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“But looking forward, more than ever, we will be required to respond to these rapidly changing social attitudes.”


For example, Ms Storey continued, consumers increasingly expect organisations to not only consider shareholder value but also take into account environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and operate an ethically sound business.

“These towering consumer expectations are a global macro trend that has not been seen before. In-house counsel is perfectly placed to meet that challenge and advise their business on how to respond,” Ms Storey said.

At the Corporate Counsel Summit 2024, Ms Storey – host of The Counsel Podcast – will unpack the path forward for in-house counsel amid these changing expectations.

Keep your finger on the pulse

Legal departments could lead this change by keeping their finger on the pulse and proactively reporting to the business.

“Having wonderful relationships with the CEO, board of directors, and key executives will be crucial for in-house counsel to be able to report on what is coming and what will be expected of them. You can then advise them on how they could respond,” she said.

Ms Storey flagged, however, that not all businesses will respond positively to the changes, and they could continue to prioritise profits and shareholder value.

“I think this will be a big mistake that will affect market share in the long run, as well as the ability for businesses to recruit and retain amazing talent, especially the younger generation,” she warned.

“But that is their prerogative if they wish to ignore counsel advice.”

The role of in-house legal departments is to advise businesses on policies, procedures, and how to respond to regulatory and legislative changes around issues such as modern slavery or employment laws, Ms Storey explained.

What to look for in new talent

Attracting the next generation of talent will also be critical as the role of in-house counsel evolves over the next decade.

Before recruiting new staff, Ms Storey recommended that organisations outline what skills their current department has, where the gaps are, and how that corresponds with the business’s strategy over the next three to five years.

“Keep in mind that anything longer than three years can feel too long because things are changing so quickly,” she said.

Following this, businesses can go to market and look for talent that matches the skills the legal team is seeking.

How to get started in in-house counsel

Ms Storey said she “wholeheartedly believes” that junior counsel will increasingly enter the profession straight from university rather than private practice.

Indeed, she transitioned from a top-tier private practice to in-house after three years, defying those concerned about her leaving private practice too soon.

“I think that this is a controversial and much-debated topic that has had more than enough air time. It has pros and cons to it like any career path choice,” Ms Storey said.

“However, I think in-house counsel is a wonderful way to begin a career, with the right mentoring and program in place. We will see younger talent coming in straight from law school. As legal professionals and in-house counsel, we will be looking at how we can best guide this junior and raw talent.”

While the College of Law offers graduate diploma and master’s programs in in-house practice, Ms Storey said more micro courses could be offered that explain the role and nuances of in-house lawyers.

“I think it will put an emphasis on what people call soft skills, such as empathy and developing your emotional intelligence, as well as the art of persuasion and putting your position across. I call them hard skills because they are hard to acquire,” she said.

Junior in-house lawyers will require training on best practice and communication and legal advice skills.

Mentors must provide constructive feedback to the newcomers if the outcome they achieved was not what was being sought, Ms Storey said.

She concluded: “That’s the same as any workplace. They call it legal practice for a reason. It takes practice. I do think that the first five years of their career, no matter where [they] are (private practice, in-house or elsewhere), are like an apprenticeship.

“Ultimately, our role is to advise businesses to achieve outcomes that we believe are going to be in the best interests of the shareholders, second only to our remit of acting in the pursuit of justice and the best interests of the courts.”

To hear more from Mel Storey about what the next generation of successful in-house counsel looks like, come along to the Corporate Counsel Summit 2024.

It will be held on Thursday, 2 May, at The Star, Sydney.

Click here to buy your tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

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