Time to pull together

It is impossible to quantify the amount of work or potential work that was being signed up at Legal Monte Carlo '99, but it was clear from discussions at the bar as well as in the presentations that the relationship between in-house and private practice has reached a critical stage.

DJ Freeman's Laurence Harris declared the unspeakable when he told his private practice colleagues that they might have to share clients and, even more radically, they should be happy about it. On the other side, Gillan Switalski similarly shocked her counterparts by daring to say that in-house lawyers were becoming a very expensive option for companies and one they might well be able to do without.

What unites these points of view is the realisation that the cosy, mutually supportive, costly and potentially inefficient status quo is cracking.

For firms it is not just a matter of being willing to satisfy (and charge for) only parts of a company's legal needs. It is as Harris pointed out, a matter of looking at the structure of a firm and seeing whether the current arrangement of staff and expertise is the best way of servicing a broader range of clients with more specific demands. To talk of a "seamless extension of the in-house function" as he did, may have been seen as treason a few years ago but now it offers something for a courageous firm to aim for. This is not the death of the autonomous law firm, it is potentially the birth of a new legal services company.

For some lawyers on the payroll of big companies, the home truth that they may well be a luxury may lead them to entrench their role, drive harder bargains with their panels and act as legal gatekeeper. Others may seize the opportunity to rework their role and create a more productive and effective relationship with their private practice colleagues to ensure that the company has a seamless legal function.

Such a role may involve a willingness to give up power or profile in the interests of effectiveness. It may even involve spending more money in certain areas, but the key for both groups is to work with, rather than fear, underestimate or take for granted their colleagues in the other house.