The future general counsel

We take a look and speculate as to what the typical GC role will be at the end of this decade focusing on any changes that are in motion now.

Of course, there really is no ‘typical’ GC role because of differences in the purpose and business of the organisation(s) they work for. 

Nevertheless, there are some core fundamentals that can be identified, many of which also apply to in-house counsel generally.

The continuing benefits of the GC and in-house counsel

As the number of in-house lawyers has increased, so has the range of organisations that they work for – from huge multinationals and larger public bodies to new tech start-ups and charities. The reasons for this drift in-house have been well documented but common reasons relate to controlling cost, navigating increasing regulation and legal complexity and the benefits of accessibility and local knowledge.

We think this trend will continue, not least for these reasons: -

1. In many organisations, the GC (and their team) are often now seen as fundamental to the machinery of running and developing the organisation, whether that’s through facilitating commercial transactions, navigating new laws and regulations, or protecting assets and reputations.

2. The GC controls and manages the cost of legal work, making it largely predictable and budgeted.

3. The GC is often steeped in the workings and culture of the organisation and is, consequently, better able to advise in context, highlighting risks and issues in advance, often as part of the planning process.

4. The GC is, if not the ‘conscience’ of the organisation, rightly expected to have a strong focus on not only the legal integrity of the organisation but also, increasingly, its wider ethical integrity as well.

This does not mean that any GC can afford to become complacent. Generations of GCs have done excellent work in establishing their in-house teams as business partners with other parts of the organisation and demonstrating value in relation to the bottom line and beyond. Yet, it behoves GCs to continue to look at how they can improve the quality of the service they provide.

Providing a legal service

Many GCs have seen a broadening of the scope of the legal advice they and their team provide, whether as a result of increased business activity or because they are involved in a wider spread of business issues. Whilst there may well be higher levels of understanding of the value that the GC (and their team) add, this also brings its own challenges as the GC strives to avoid firefighting and looks for operational efficiency.

Consequently, many GCs have systems to track and prioritise workflow and to help focus finite resources on those areas of highest business need and risk. GCs have also needed to increasingly anticipate shifting priorities and demands so that resources (external providers included) can be utilised flexibly.

Part of the solution has been for GCs to keep under review structures and expertise to ensure that the team’s lawyers are best placed to provide timely, relevant advice in line with changing business needs and priorities. It has also led many GCs to require systems that can analyse data relating to the use and cost of legal services across the organisation. This, in turn, will often mean that GCs have become more protective of their time and expertise as they rationalise the legal service.

This need to focus and prioritise has resulted in a broadening of the ways in which legal advice is provided. Face to face advice is often given in the context of a collaborative team or project environment as the GC/in-house counsel works closely with business colleagues to resolve current or anticipated issues.

Many GCs have also looked at automation and technology to provide help and possible solutions for colleagues, including as a filter on the referral of more complex or novel problems to the GC. Examples could include the use of automated systems for contract drafting and approval and an increased use of contractual templates and playbooks. Many legal teams now also use template Q&As and similar resources to enable colleagues to find solutions as an alternative to a referral to a lawyer.

All this has meant that, in many ways, the GC has become more innovative in the way that legal advice and help is provided as changing priorities and new complexities quickly render redundant any systems that are too inflexible. An understanding and use of technology can be of real help to GCs here if implementation cost is justifiable as GCs look for proactive solutions as an alternative to reacting piecemeal to existing problems.

Generally, we think that future GCs will need to be both flexible and innovative in the service they provide. The need for traditional face to face advice will not change but the context in which advice is given will continue to move in the direction of integrated business and project teams and away from a more traditional arm’s length model of reactive legal advice.

Further, the GC will need to regularly review and reflect on the mix and cost of delivering advice and other services and to employ technology wisely where this can materially improve operational efficiency.

People, skills, and qualities

Most GCs are experienced lawyers, often with strong sector knowledge. Many will have worked for a period in private practice before moving in-house. This is similarly true for most in-house counsel, although some larger public and commercial organisations do offer training contracts and operate a ‘train your own’ policy.

A start in private practice is commonly the way that in-house counsel learns the fundamentals of practising the law and of client service. This model seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, not least as it focuses the training costs on law firms rather than in-house teams. Having said this, many GCs say that there is an element of retraining or re-skilling when private practice lawyers first move in-house as they adjust to the different demands of in-house practice.

These differences have been well documented elsewhere but tend to centre on communication styles, the different expectations of in-house clients, different measures of achievement and, often, an emphasis on broader rather than specialist expertise.

There’s little doubt that in-house counsel also need a broader skill set beyond what are thought of as traditional legal skills, vital as these are. Indeed, it’s worth emphasising that a deep understanding of the law and regulation affecting the organisation and its sector, together with excellent analytical ability, and a well-developed client service ethos, are essential for any in-house lawyer and need to be honed as part of the lawyer’s career development.

But there are other things that in-house counsel must also do very well.

We’ve already mentioned business understanding and acumen and the importance of communicating in a way that colleagues understand and can act on. Additionally, the modern GC and in-house counsel must be a collaborator and someone who knows how to build relationships and alliances.

They must also understand how to influence and persuade (requiring self-awareness and a good helping of emotional intelligence. They also need resilience as they will often be in the thick of problems and even crises, where cool heads and a calm, logical approach are highly valued. These are all skills and qualities that are learned and which will be more important than ever, going forward, we suggest.

There is a further quality that, increasingly, GCs and in-house counsel need and that is adaptability. Organisations have always been subject to change but the pace and scale of change seems to be increasing and sometimes events move so rapidly that GCs and their teams are having to respond more quickly than they may feel comfortable with.

This requires an ability to adapt and to be flexible – to respond quickly to changing demands and to flex or pivot as necessary – but within an environment that maintains legal integrity and is in keeping with the regulatory and ethical framework that the organisation and its stakeholder’s demand.

Just as with other skills, this is something that can be learned and developed and is a quality that we suggest will need to be very much part of the ‘toolkit’ of future GCs, at least.

The GC and the wider team

What does the changing business landscape mean for GCs and their teams? As well as meeting the challenges thrown up by ‘business as usual’, GCs are having to get to grips with a developing environmental, social and governance agenda, which is impacting different organisations in different ways.

For many GCs this may mean (if it has not already) an expanding brief as new legal requirements must be navigated and responsibility for ethical as well as legal compliance falls under the GC’s purview. This is a trend that we suggest is likely to continue as organisations are increasingly subject to scrutiny on a broad range of factors beyond just commercial performance.

The ESG agenda itself will impact several areas that the GC and their team may well be involved in (perhaps already). Examples include compliance and reporting, supply chain integrity, risk management, workforce matters, supporting effective governance, the international dimension and litigation.

There is already some evidence that GCs are taking on a broader brief because of ESG requirements and developments and this is a trend that may well gather pace in the near future. This will be an additional factor for GCs to navigate as they seek to focus their resources on what matters most, requiring an increasingly sophisticated approach to the planning and delivery of legal services given that simply employing more lawyers to cope is unlikely to be a regular option. Rather, GCs will continue to need to look at ways in which they can meet demand by using a range of different systems to provide advice and support in the most effective ways.

Given that in-house teams will continue to be built around qualified lawyers, are there any trends that may impact the make-up of those teams?

Here are three suggestions.

First, GCs, where recruiting lawyers for the team, will continue to emphasise those qualities that will enhance the strength and flexibility of the team in the face of what is often a fluid and fast-moving business environment. So, as well as excellent legal and communication skills, in-house counsel will need to be commercially aware, proactive, adaptable, persuasive, resilient and a good collaborator and relationship-builder.

Second, in-house legal teams will often strive for a range of experience and background to provide an expert yet flexible and diverse team that is able to respond to, and anticipate, business need and which also provides the sort of variety of role, work environment and career path that in-house lawyers are looking for. This places an increasing emphasis on recruiting, training, and learning & development programmes as well as good on in-job experience.

Third, GCs are having to be smarter in the way they work with others. This may, for example, be reflected in an increase in the number of non-lawyers working in in-house teams where certain jobs and tasks are undertaken by paralegals or non-lawyer experts, including in relation to the running of the legal team itself – think of the rise of legal operations, for example.

Also, given the squeezing of budgets and of the increasing need to justify spending, GCs are more focused than ever on getting the right mix of external providers and on deriving value from them, whether they are law firms, counsel or alternative providers.


In the last few years, organisations and businesses have had to navigate a lot of change, so much so that the idea of business as usual may sometimes seem like a novel concept. Of course, change may be both internally and externally driven and, whilst the drivers of change may vary, it seems very unlikely that the pace will do other than quicken over the next few years.

For GCs and in-house counsel, we think that the need for them to be imaginative and resourceful in the way they provide legal services to their organisation, whilst maintaining high levels of quality, will continue to be key to their success. Additionally, they’ll need to flexible in meeting changing demands, priorities, and legislation, not to mention less predictable challenges of the kind we’ve seen in recent times.

Change has often helped GCs and in-house counsel attain greater prominence and influence in their organisations. At the same time, it rightly places expectations on GCs and their teams to use that influence to help guide and shape the organisation’s response to a fast moving business, legal and ethical environment and this will require high levels of skill, expertise, experience and purpose.