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Riding out the storm: In-house counsel and the GFC

Riding out the storm: In-house counsel and the GFC

The GFC storm has blown in a new understanding of in-house counsel. Peter Turner writes. _x000D_

The GFC storm has blown in a new understanding of in-house counsel. Peter Turner writes. 

With the GFC now starting to recede into the past - at least for business - it is perhaps timely to review what actually occurred as far as in-house practice is concerned.

The long and the short of it is that actually, very little happened. We did not see the wholesale sackings of in-house legal departments that we've seen during previous downturns. Nor did we hear much nervousness.

By and large, in-house practitioners just went about their business much as they had always done. Sure, discretionary expenditure was cut back and there were not the usual large attendances at conferences. Salaries and bonus payments were of course held in check and there were fewer domestic and overseas job opportunities than there had been before.

But essentially, in-house practice held up and indeed, in some sectors, continued to grow. Why was that? In a few words, I think that the answer is because a corner has now definitely been turned. The old attitude towards in-house lawyers, that they were a costly road-block to business and must continuously demonstrate their value and fight down cost in order to survive, is no longer the dominant view.

To the contrary, there is now broad acceptance in both the private and the public sectors that in-house counsel do clearly add value to the business process and can and do operate efficiently and effectively at the very highest strategic levels.

In essence, the value equation has now been turned on its head, with the pressure today more on law firms to demonstrate their value than on in-house.

The input of in-house lawyers to the design and oversight of governance, compliance and disclosure mechanisms in corporations and the government has become essential and the task is attracting the country's top legal talent.

While the future of the in-house profession thus looks rosy, the economic and business landscape will continue to change and in-house practitioners will always need to adapt.

In particular, ever rising workloads constitute a growing threat to their professionalism and independence.

The storm may have blown over but the gale continues.

Peter Turner is the chief executive officer of the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association.

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