Corporate GC: a role on a roll

Law Society in-house grouping breaks away and spreads its wings

In-house corporate lawyers spent years being dismissed as the branch of the profession with one foot in the retirement home. But there’s nothing like a global financial meltdown to concentrate the minds of big business chiefs on costs and give the whip hand to their top lawyers in dictating terms to law firms. 

So while historically international groups promoting in-house issues were few and far between, suddenly they are coming along like London buses. The Commerce & Industry Group (C&I Group) – formerly a sleepy offshoot of the Law Society of England and Wales – has cut the Chancery Lane apron strings and jumped on board a three-year-old collective called In-house Counsel Worldwide (IHCW). 

The C&I Group’s new chairman Mark Harvey, head of legal at charity Age UK and co-chair of the In-house Charities Lawyers Group, was appointed this month and he’s already bagged an equal-terms meeting with the Law Society president and is planning to lead the group at a Singapore summit meeting of the IHCW next June. 

When he sat down last week with Chancery Lane’s top officer Nick Fluck, high on the agenda will have been the society’s intentions for its own in-house division. 

For years the C&I Group had been in the Chancery Lane fold, but this spring it split, blaming Law Society changes to rules governing the independence of groups. Making that move cost it a cash subsidy, forcing the group to fund its annual £200,000 budget exclusively through membership fees. 

However, with some 6,000 corporate and individual members – including major FTSE players such as BAe Systems, British Gas, Lloyds Banking Group, Network Rail, Shell, The Co-operative Group, Virgin Media and Zurich Insurance – C&I is not likely to struggle. But with the Law Society under pressure to generate income outside the practising fee subsidy, does the C&I Group anticipate competition? 

Possibly, says Harvey, but he welcomes the challenge. 

“The C&I Group is strong on training, whereas the Law Society’s division isn’t,” he explains. “That’s part of the reason for our independence. We can work together and if there’s any competition, that will be healthy.” 

The C&I Group provides training beyond strict black-letter law issues, verging into areas such as management and risk. 

“In-house counsel are increasingly having to take on a wider brief,” says Harvey. “Many are being asked to advise on strategy and methodology.” 

For its part, the Law Society dismisses any suggestion of an acrimonious split. It maintains that it sought “a collaborative relationship with C&I throughout [the disengagement] process and we would like to continue to have strong links with them”. But it leaves the door open to competition between its  division and the group, with a spokeswoman pointing out that Chancery Lane already offers continuing professional development programmes dedicated to in-house solicitors. 

“We’re not setting out to compete with C&I,” she says, “but to fulfil our strategic goal of direct engagement with members of the society and offer valued services.” 

A core difference between the division – which offers access for free – and the group is that the former has a much wider brief, covering central and local government lawyers as well as corporate in-housers.

In broad terms, Harvey describes the C&I Group’s mission as being “to raise the profile of corporate in-house lawyers to show there is merit in having them on board rather than instructing outside firms”. 

He maintains the status of in-house lawyers was improving gradually until the middle of the last decade, but leapt significantly once the financial crisis kicked in. 

“Many businesses are asking whether it’s a better use of their money to have a bigger and more competent in-house team than to instruct so many external firms,” he says. “Having people on tap you can talk to at any time of day is sometimes much better than having to call law firms and then not being certain about what level of experienced lawyer you’re talking to.” 

Joining forces with the IHCW shows the breadth of the C&I Group’s ambitions. The international body was formally launched three years ago, but only in the past year has it drafted a constitution and begun promoting itself. It consists of national bodies from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa, and next year’s summit is being hosted by the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association with strong support from the local ministry of justice. 

Despite its increasingly international approach, the C&I Group has a parochial side. When asked for a view of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s efforts to make inroads in Europe, Harvey bluntly says he knows “nothing” about the US-based megagroup.