As business casual norms change from forward fashion to Freddie Mercury T-shirts, the legal profession is also changing. In many ways, the traditional model of corporate law life is over, and for the right reasons. Associate promotion is no longer, and should no longer, be tied to office face time, inevitable late-night Five Guys deliveries, and 11 p.m. drop-ins from partners down the hall. The hybrid work model is what the profession’s future entails, and it is well overdue.
Work Location Is Not All That’s Changing
The role of a lawyer as merely legal counsel is soon to be an archaic relic, where the narrow focus of pure legal work is no longer the norm. Lanes are getting blurred in organizations, and lawyers are getting hired faster to make strategic and financial decisions rather than just legal ones. Yet broadening into multiple lanes does not mean a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities have shrunk, but instead, they have become more nuanced and, in many ways, more vital.
The Dual Role as Legal Advisor and Transaction Participant
As a Big Law alum who has recently transitioned into the hospitality tech start-up world, I have noticed the drastic shift in expectations of how lawyers are brought into the fold for more direct decision-making. Instead of advising clients on the legal dos and don’ts of financial transactions and planning, our new role in the modern organization is to think strategically while executing the company’s operative plans. In other words, today’s lawyers must internalize a dual role as legal advisor and transaction participant.
At Bbot, Inc., I head the legal and finance departments, using my previous roles in structured finance and capital markets as the nexus between the seemingly conflicting departments. Most days are split between revising internal company policies, negotiating sales agreements with potential clients and partners, updating our budgets, and improving internal expense and revenue procedures. My exodus from corporate law means I no longer just advise compliance methodologies or risks associated with financial transactions, but instead, I analyze, resolve, and execute business decisions. My corporate law training was just that—which helps me make better, informed conclusions for advancing innovative products instead of the more removed experience of client services.
What Does a Hybrid Position Require?
A hybrid position requires an attorney to understand the nature of the questions in these different contexts. For example, financial questions from the executive team do not always seek a legally minded answer, but leading a finance department does not obviate an in-house attorney’s responsibility to protect and safeguard privileged information and communication. As such, part of the ongoing duties of an in-house attorney is to communicate ethical obligations to the management team and ensure that each member of management understands the implications of their questions and the role from which they seek an answer.
Whether it is formulating an operating model for the upcoming fiscal year or working on employment law compliance for international employees, the decision-making and interaction with colleagues is one of situational awareness, with the ability to compartmentalize becoming a necessary quality for the modern lawyer, especially when it comes to attorney-client privilege.
Courts have ruled that the attorney-client privilege does not protect certain communications with an in-house attorney not acting in a legal capacity. But there is no magic lever that will turn on or off the in-house legal switch related to privilege, and thus it needs to be internalized by a lawyer each time she sends a communication. Simple things such as appropriate job titles (e.g., adding legal counsel to chief compliance officer), self-representation as the company’s lawyer in correspondence to third parties, and focusing on the legal aspects as the “primary purpose” of the communication is an excellent start to protect privilege and to prevent confusion from cross-stream responsibilities.
The Future of Junior Attorneys
The adapting legal profession will never shed its utmost duty to provide clear and succinct advice to its clients, whether third parties or within the organization. But the skill set junior lawyers need to acquire is not only one passed through the corporate law office system because that world has changed. The future of junior attorneys is adaptability and the ability to implement legal skills into the tech marketplace. While AI and automation may replace our current jobs, it is up to the next generation of lawyers to adapt and similarly replace existing jobs and outdated professions that require a significant overhaul. Which ones? It depends.