In one story privately related by an in-house lawyer, she was berated by a partner at a top-10 City law firm for failing to award her company’s mandate to his team. This he did in a partners meeting, from which he called her out of the blue, putting her on speaker phone. That was in the late-1990s.
The last two decades are a story of growing respect for in-house lawyers, dramatically increased competition to enter the in-house sector, and intensified efforts by private practice to court the attention of in-house peers as clients.
So far so good. Telling off potential clients or deriding them as people who simply couldn’t cut it in private practice was never a very appropriate way for City lawyers to comport themselves.
But the account of in-house lawyers at this week’s roundtable discussion suggests we are seeing a more subtle form of brazen disrespect – and it is centred around fees.
Several report a dramatic increase in legal fees and question whether the rises are merited. As one remarks, referencing newly qualified salaries at the global elite, one can get an awful lot of in-house lawyer for that kind of money.
Of course, for those charged with running our elite firms there are consequences for falling behind a competitor in profits per equity partner or losing out to those competitors when it comes to hiring or retaining the best newly minted lawyers. But clients, most of whose corporate counsel trained at those very firms, are footing the bill for both the bread and the circus. Their dissatisfaction should be heeded.
As for in-house lawyers themselves, research by Irwin Mitchell (news page 11) reveals concerns that remain stubbornly close to home. For those attracted in-house, career progression and succession planning remain difficult issues; confidence is lacking around the use of new technology; and accommodating the idiosyncrasies of the legal profession within corporate KPIs is an awkward task – all of these were problems 20 years ago.
In meeting these challenges, in-house lawyers are surely best advised to seek the views, counsel and support of their peers – certainly, the firms they instruct seem to have few answers.