What’s the future in-house?

A survey out of the U.K. in early January declared that despite tough times for companies globally, in-house departments continued to grow year over year. More than two-thirds of in-house lawyers reported their teams have expanded over the last five years, with 43 per cent seeing increases of more than 10 per cent. The remainder said their team has stayed static.

This wasn’t such a surprise, especially when I had just finished doing interviews for our second annual View 2014 and the message from the five general counsel I spoke to was their teams were growing or staying flat but either way it meant they were assuming more work internally. OMERS, Canadian Tire, Shell, Bombardier, and BMO all have in-house departments the size of some law firms, ranging from 30 to over 180 lawyers.

As Audrey Mak of OMERS told me, “We’re doing governance, tax, privacy — anything we can grab onto because one of the important things about being in-house counsel is to be flexible and learn and be challenged by new things and not just be a specialist.”

One of the benefits of being in-house at OMERS, she said, was the growth factor. “We’ve grown a lot and because of our growth strategy we’re going to need more lawyers at the end of the day.”

However, when we asked in-house counsel who gave us their predictions for 2013 to revisit their commentary to Canadian Lawyer InHouse, it turns out at least one — Jane Fedoretz from CEDA International — had seen their team shrink (see page 28) to two lawyers (including herself), a paralegal, and an assistant. She lost a lawyer when one moved into a commercial position and she was asked not to rehire as a result of budget demands. That is down from six staff in the department at the end of 2012 and nine in early 2012. Fedoretz runs a tight department and has made it a practice to demonstrate to the C-suite how the legal team adds value, but these days how the business performs affects the legal department. Largely gone are the days when legal was an exception at budget time.

As with all business units these days, legal needs to react to the challenges of the market like every other department. That means legal departments will likely become more fluid, rising and falling in tandem with the growth spurts or declines of the company or organization as a whole.

The other issue for in-house teams that have grown steadily over time is providing a continuous path of career development when growth slows in the department. At a retail giant like Canadian Tire, expansion into the digital retail world has provided many new opportunities for specialization for the lawyers working with Robyn Collver but what about those who aspire to move up the ladder in an organization where the general counsel is firmly entrenched with no plans to leave anytime soon? Is succession planning happening in-house? Can it be fulfilling enough to keep the good ones happy in mid-level positions over time?

At Canadian Tire, the team has been growing but Collver spoke about questions she has regarding the dynamic of in-house departments long-term. Recruiters will tell you there are more people looking to go in-house than there are jobs. So what happens as the in-house demographic in larger departments age but there is no room for movement?

Surveys showing growth in in-house departments bodes well for the profession but there are underlying issues that mean there are also long-term questions.

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