Power to the (legal) people

The complaints of in-house lawyers are manifold, but chief among them is that they too often sit outside the decision-making within their companies. To be fair, their concerns have been justified in many cases. There are plenty of corporate horror stories that could have been avoided if the lawyers had been allowed in earlier.

Contrary to what many of their private practice colleagues think, the main part of any in-house lawyer’s job is not simply managing the procurement of legal advice. Panel reviews make good news stories, but the meat of the job is changing – and with it the profile of in-house lawyers. Chief executives are starting to be alert to the horrible effects of litigation, particularly when it comes to employment or health and safety issues. (Witness the surge in hires of employment lawyers by major investment banks.)

But it goes deeper than that. There have been several developments recently that point to the growing influence of legal issues on corporate strategy.

Earlier this year we revealed that pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is recruiting litigators to investigate the patents of acquisition targets in order to find weaknesses in their IP portfolios. Patent lawyers are deemed explicitly essential to the company’s growth.

The same applies to Marks & Spencer. The retailer is halfway through a recovery plan put in place by chief executive Stuart Rose. Key to that recovery is getting its property strategy right – and underpinning that is the recruitment of two specialist lawyers, as we report today (see cover). The composition of the in-house legal team is key to understanding the commercial priorities of ambitious organisations.

Some in-house lawyers are rethinking their departments even further, with a slow trend towards graduate recruitment. Barclays Capital is about to start offering training contracts, joining the likes of Reuters, HBOS, HSBC and Persimmon.

Of course Mark Harding, general counsel of Barclays, has also been instrumental in upping the profile of in-house lawyers through the increasingly influential GC100 lobby group. His successor as GC100 chair, Helen Mahy of National Grid, is interviewed in this issue (see page 4).

Mahy’s revelation that GC100 membership will be extended to company secretaries is notable. In-house lawyers have realised that they need a coherent voice in order to articulate the legal and governance issues that can get left out of board discussions. More power to them.