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Downturn challenges in-house counsel

Downturn challenges in-house counsel

IN-HOUSE LAWYERS will need to develop a multicultural outlook to succeed in the current climate, according to Fred Krebs, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel in the US.Krebs, along…

IN-HOUSE LAWYERS will need to develop a multicultural outlook to succeed in the current climate, according to Fred Krebs, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel in the US.

Krebs, along with Jean Claude Najar, general counsel for GE Commercial Finance in France, delivered this message as part of the international keynote address at the 2008 ACLA National Conference last week.

According to Krebs, as barriers to international business continue to fall, in-house lawyers are increasingly finding themselves working in global legal teams and they must be comfortable dealing with people from different cultures.

“Increasingly in-house counsel around the world faces the same issues and deals with the same concerns. We can all learn from each other and adapt the lessons to our own [legal] systems,” he said. “Judgement, credibility, courage and confidence are requisite requirements of in-house counsel anywhere in the world.”

Ideally, he said, the global in-house counsel will have knowledge of the business regulations in different countries, they will be multi-lingual and they will have experienced living overseas, and they will have this multicultural perspective “imbedded in their nature”.

Krebs then went on to discuss the particular challenges for in-house counsel around the world in the current economic climate, most notably the challenge to maintain independence.

During trying economic times, Krebs explained, in-house counsel will be under increasing scrutiny from the media and from internal management, and more than ever, CEO’s will look to their in-house counsel to be their “trusted advisor”. The advice given by in-house counsel during this tricky period, Krebs said, will be crucial to maintaining the business’s reputation.

“You must maintain your independence – don’t let the influence of the downward business trend stop you giving your best advice,” he said. “Whether or not your company maintains its reputation and brand will be a product of how you act during this time … you must continue to do good work [despite the] leaner resources available and pressure to reduce costs.”

Najar explained that in Europe, in-house counsel have traditionally not reported directly to the company CEO and have not been considered true business partners. He believes, however, that this is changing and that in-house lawyers are now making the transition from being the “paper-pushers of the boardroom” to being business partners, and he thinks the current economic situation will speed this process up.

He agreed with Krebs that in the current economic climate management will increasingly look to in-house counsel to assist with business decisions. The challenge for in-house counsel, he said, will be to maintain independence and give the best advice – even if it doesn’t bode well for the business – and at the same time help guide management through tough business decisions.

- By Zoe Lyon

>> For the latest news, views and analysis of issues affecting in-house lawyers, check out Lawyers Weekly's dedicated in-house site

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