In-House Counsel

The Rise of General Counsel: Prof Outlines Three Generations of Lawyering

The legal profession of generalist lawyers changed after the end of World War II, becoming a profession of specialists trained to serve the needs of industrial and financial clients, a law professor says.

Now lawyering is entering a third generation, according to Indiana University law professor William Henderson. Lawyers are becoming project managers, helping corporations obtain legal work at predictable and lower costs, he writes in an essay excerpted at The Legal Whiteboard.

The supply of sophisticated business lawyers has increased beyond demand, increasing the power of a few hundred general counsel who control the budgets, Henderson says. “The end of the specialist era is marked by general counsel’s use of the overcapacity of specialists to drive down overall costs to their corporation,” he says.

Innovations in law firm structure and training created prosperity for U.S. lawyers in the second generation, Henderson says. “Unfortunately, those of us who have benefited—senior law firm partners, elite law school graduates and the professoriate—are prone to attribute our success to a natural ordering that flows primarily from our perceived intelligence and merit,” he writes. “Because we do not understand the history, we underestimate the role of luck and how much we owe to the innovations, risk-taking, and sacrifice of others. So, we are the last to see the end of an era.”

Henderson says law schools that reinvent themselves in response to the changes “are likely to find themselves at the top of a brand-new hierarchy.”

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