The Future of In-house Legal

What will in-house roles look like in future?

We were fortunate to gather futurist thinkers to discuss the Future of In-house Legal over three learning events hosted in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch recently. So many great ideas were explored that we divided them into two articles. Last month, in part one of this feature, we focused on what existing and new skills organisations are asking from in-house counsel. This month we invert that and look at what in-house counsel are asking from their organisations and what in-house legal roles might look like in the future.

Hybrid and remote working are no longer uncommon and it presents employees and organisations with both opportunities and challenges. As one speaker said, “I love working from home as much as I hate working from home.” There is an expectation on organisations to recognise the positive effects for the team and business that a solid team culture brings and consciously build one that respects their wellbeing, trusts them, and provides learning in developing areas.

There is an increasing need to keep tabs on the team’s wellbeing as when working from home, you do not get to leave the office, so there is the risk of working longer and harder hours. Regular check-ins, shared morning teas, lunches, and workshops (i.e., motivating reasons to connect and be onsite) help bind the team and build resilience.

Workplace culture and scope for learning and development are determining factors in recruitment and retention with “The Great Realignment”. Younger lawyers especially want to be connected to the purpose of their work, not just the social outcomes, but serving and improving lives. They are increasingly looking for alignment of personal values, and roles that provide them with continued learning and upskilling. 

It is important to consider the effect of the hybrid model, and its autonomous work, on training junior lawyers within the business too. This can be helped by a solid culture in the organisation, clear processes, and communication, as does training team members on the company’s risk appetite. Micro secondments can be a way to learn and experience the different areas of the business.

Future legal roles will increasingly include hybrid roles such as legal operations, project management, technology and data roles. In-house legal needs to have a triple focus: on the law, the business, and the customer. They can be pivotal in bringing the work together and combining external specialist advisors, but not necessarily doing it all.

The trend in the US for the General Counsel to encompass ESG is gaining traction here. There is an expectation that legal will help the organisation to build better social outcomes in the areas of sustainability, climate change, diversity and inclusion, to positively impact people, climate and communities. There is a synergy between legal and ESG strategies as both involve taking a risk-based approach.

We may see more specialist roles in the legal team, e.g. chief AI officer and chief sustainability officer as the legal team’s growing portfolios recognise the broader skills of the in-house lawyers. It is standard in US and UK that the GC sits at the executive level and Aotearoa is behind the rest of the world in this area. Speakers suggested we need to move to the space where the GC is at the top table as reporting to the CFO makes legal more of a compliance function.

There’s a growing need for agile and cost-effective legal operations that leave the manual, routine, low-value work to be automated or centralised. Almost all our guests spoke about the value of this role within the team, but depending on the size, convincing the organisation can prove challenging. The idea of sharing the operations role between public sector departments was suggested.

Looking into the future, all speakers agreed that human skills including common sense and the ability to make the complex simple will always be valued from in-house lawyers. The knack is going to be how we can grow these skills quickly to grow and retain people and offer them micro-credentials that support the business and its people.