The role of the general counsel and other inside lawyers now encompasses three distinct functions: the technician, the wise counselor, and the leader/manager.
Although the general counsel must be a strong business partner for the CEO and other business leaders, he/she must also be a guardian of the company. And as business and societal issues have become of greater importance to corporations, in many major companies the general counsel now has comparable status to the chief financial officer.
As the Washington sphere of influence continues to broaden and deepen, general counsels have increasingly been hired from the upper reaches of government and private practice. We see this trend continuing, as the general counsel needs to be more of a political strategist than ever before. Since the level of legal talent has increased inside of the Fortune 1000, the general counsel has become—in many cases— the chief legal advisor to the CEO and to the board of directors. The post has replaced the venerable senior partner from one of the great law firms.
The prestige, status, compensation, power, and position of the modern general counsel puts them at the core of an increasing number of major transnational corporations. But this enhanced role will only continue (and be expanded at other companies) if boards of directors and CEOs see the value of a strong inside team working closely with business leaders. They must be willing both to pay for talent and to carry the legal headcount.