During the International Bar Association’s recent annual conference in Seoul, the In-House Counsel Forum (IHCF) organized a lunch for its members, partners and the many in-house counsel from around the world who had attended. The keynote speaker was well known legal academic Professor Eunice Kim, who shared her past experiences during the ‘age of outside counsel’ to a new era, which she says is a complete transformation. We edited her speech for readers of Asia Business Law Journal
I have worked in different roles and capacities in the past 30-plus years, and even though I worked in-house for only 15 out of those 30-plus years, I still think of myself as an in-house counsel. I am in my 10th year of teaching at Ewha, but I still introduce myself as a professor with a past – that I worked in-house in my prior professional life.
So, I have to admit that it is hard for me to get the in-house identity out of me just yet. Maybe more decades need to pass before that happens. I still find that whenever I meet another in-house lawyer, I have an immediate affinity and connection, at least on my part.
As an aside, I was one of the founding members of IHCF – I always knew this group would grow in leaps and bounds, but what actually happened far surpassed my wildest imagination. IHCF today has become the go-to organization for all in-house lawyers in Korea that provides excellent training and networking opportunities, like this event today.
What I want to share with you today is something that all of you already know – that the age of the in-house counsel has finally arrived, and is here to stay. That is certainly my conjecture, and more importantly, the conjecture of many experts. What we are seeing is the rise of in-house legal departments in virtually all sectors and industries, and the transformation of the law firm practice (private practice) to accommodate the changing role and demands of in-house counsel.
Let’s quickly review how it used to be in the age of the outside counsel – I can tell you from my personal experience as this is an age that I lived through:
- Intermediary role: Little value-added. The common perception was that in-house counsel acted merely as intermediaries, who added little or no value. Many people also thought that real expertise resided with outside counsel.
- Does not understand business: Lonely in the legal silo. Another view was that in-house counsel did not understand business, remained lonely in the legal silo, were not integrated with their business, were uninvited to meetings, especially in the planning stage, and were unapproachable because they spoke “legalese”, and were possible deal preventers who said no.
- A walking cost centre: Keeping it small and cheap. With one-lawyer internal legal teams, there was a vicious cycle of dissatisfaction from business departments with inexperienced in-house counsel, and the same the other way around. There was no need for the company to pay good compensation salary, and so mediocre compensation applied for in-house counsel.
- Passive and less ambitious. In-house counsel were seen as passive and unambitious, and with uncertain long-term career prospects.
- Limited mobility options. This was often the case both inside and outside the company.
- Long-term job security? Any form of long-term security as an in-house counsel was either uncertain or unlikely.
- Cul de sac: Promotion unlikely. In-house counsel positions were deemed as the last job before retirement. If you moved from a law firm to an in-house position, then you were seen as someone on his/her way out of the legal profession.
- I can share a personal story with you. In the mid-1990s I worked for a joint venture asset management company that I helped set up. In-house lawyers were such a rarity at that time that people did not think it would be a viable career option.
My colleagues at that time were also worried that I would not last longer than six months at the firm, and that I would be asked to leave after the initial set-up phase since there would be no work for me to do.