Associations, what are you good for?!

Associations, what are you good for?!
What’s all the fuss? Do Canadian in-house counsel really need an association representing in-house counsel?
Those of you who read the in-house press will already know that my response to this question is an emphatic “yes.” In fact, it’s “hell, yes!” “But why?” you ask. Do they actually serve a purpose? “Hell, yes!” I’ll repeat, and here’s why.

In-house counsel associations understand the educational and training needs of in-house lawyers and provide substantive law training as well as relevant skills training with an understanding of the in-house context.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander — isn’t it? No, sorry it isn’t. There are some lovely, but misguided, folks who will tell you that we’re all lawyers and we all practise law so whether we’re in private practice or in-house, the same training courses are good for both. The in-house practice of law is discernibly different and training lawyers to be good at it involves helping lawyers learn what they need to learn to answer the questions they need to answer as in-house lawyers — while a knowledge of the law is key, such knowledge must be provided with an understanding of the types of judgment calls and decisions in-house lawyers have to make.

In-house counsel associations are (or should be) dedicated to representing in-house counsel and not the interests of the private bar, the media, and other groups to whom in-house counsel represent lucrative clients.

I was recently fortunate enough to attend the Canadian General Counsel Awards (Full disclosure here: I was a guest of Sanjeev Dhawan, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Ontario chapter). The awards are sponsored by a national newspaper and a legal recruiting firm (having been the brainchild of the recruiting firm) and the award winners are truly impressive individuals (nothing I write after this is intended to suggest otherwise).

While anyone may nominate, law firms are among those who nominate the candidates for the awards. The law firms who “support” the awards are featured prominently during the event. Representatives of the firms are profiled as members of the advisory committee selecting the winners. Law firms also have the opportunity to participate in extolling the virtues of the successful candidates. That is one excellent marketing tool for a law firm!

At one point, as I began to work through the mechanics of a nomination, I became uncomfortable. When in-house counsel award legal work, they are held to the same standard as others in the organization — the work is to be awarded based on objective and valid criteria. We can’t accept gifts over a certain value. How could an in-house lawyer ever be sure of his own objectivity, or be seen to be objective about awarding work to a firm that had nominated or supported him/her for an award? That is not to say that there is no role for external counsel as they are in a unique position to judge and compare in-house counsel and identify those who rise to the top. What about anonymous nominations or support for nominees from the firms? I humbly suggest that this type of awards program should more properly be run by an association representing in-house counsel.

In-house counsel associations are best positioned to offer the chance to continually raise the bar for in-house practice by providing an opportunity for in-house lawyers to meet at in-house counsel only events.

When in-house counsel come together to discuss the practice of law with our colleagues, we do (pardon the awful pun) raise the bar for our practice. So many of us find ourselves working alone or in small law departments without natural channels for interaction with other lawyers. When we meet, we take away practical solutions and better or best practices, for different ways of problem solving, exerting more influence more effectively to the betterment of the whole organization, and we come away energized to be better in-house practitioners. I’ve witnessed this to be true for every level of in-house lawyer attending events.

There is a concept among in-house lawyers known as “safe space.” As that phrase is offensive to some, I have begun to use “in-house counsel only events.” The fundamental idea is that as in-house counsel, we are often target clients for private firms and others. While there is no doubt that ongoing dialogue between the in-house and private bars is crucial, it is also the case that in-house lawyers need events at which they can interact with their colleagues to discuss issues and challenges of common interest. There is little to no financial incentive for organizations that are not dedicated to representing the interests of in-house counsel to provide opportunities for us to meet without a corresponding marketing opportunity and so the task is only willingly undertaken by organizations representing in-house lawyers.

An in-house counsel association understands and recognizes the need to advocate for the in-house profession as an equally respectable legal career to the private practice of law.

There’s a lingering impression out there (although I would venture that it is largely held by the uninformed) that those of us who choose to pursue an in-house career are somehow copping out or making a “lifestyle” decision or are not really practising law. As most of you know, “lifestyle” decisions are deadly to many private practitioners — less time at work means less money for the firm. I was invited to speak at a law school “alternate career day” a few years ago and the students were most disappointed to hear that I work no fewer hours as an in-house lawyer than I did when in private practice. It’s more a “rubber hits the road” kind of practice than a practice in which we do a lot of research. However, good in-house lawyers know when research and technical legal opinions are important.

I anticipate that a consistent theme of my column will focus on the central role of Canadian in-house counsel in shaping and advancing the organizations we serve. While in-house lawyers benefit from the personal opportunities to interact with other in-house counsel, Canadian organizations and businesses benefit from an increased commitment to common standards of professionalism. Getting in-house lawyers together to share best practices and approaches to problem solving is a key benefit of in-house associations.

Don’t sit back, folks — an active and vibrant in-house association is crucial for the Canadian in-house bar — get involved, work with your colleagues to improve your skills, and demand that your association provide the educational, networking, and advocacy Canadian in-house counsel require.

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