An in-house counsel carries out legal work directly for their employer, as opposed to private practice lawyers who earn money for their firm by working on behalf of multiple clients.
Professor Timothy R. Terrell, in the 1977 Emory Law Journal, aptly captured the dilemma faced by an In House Counsel (General Counsel) when he posited that;
“The general counsel has one foot planted firmly in the shifting treacherous terrain of the law, and the other planted just as firmly in the oozing swamp of business.”
COVID-19 and its adverse effects have only exacerbated this dilemma. As a result, In House counsel have been forced into less traditional roles like governmental relations, public affairs, human resource and risk management by the rapidly changing work environments.
As an attempt to ameliorate this situation, the Uganda Law Society In-house Counsel Committee hosted a virtual CLE training that ushered the over 700 attendees into July under the theme; “The Effective in-house counsel: Strategies for going from cost centre to strategic Unit.”
This event was graced by three speakers who offered sober, thoughtful, lucid and honest perspectives around the day’s theme. These were Mr Allan Rwakakooko, the Head Legal Services of Umeme Limited, Mr Micheal K Mugabi, the Managing director of Housing Finance bank and Her Excellency Pheona Nabasa Wall, the Senior manager Legal services at National Water and Sewerage Cooperation(NWSC) who also doubles as the President of the Uganda Law Society.
Allan Rwakakooko, the Head Legal Services of Umeme Limited, highlighted some of the roles played by an In house counsel. These include transaction management, claims and insurance management, litigation management, legal enforcement and legal advisory services.
In the functioning of these diverse roles, he identified critical success factors like speed and agility, flexibility and versatility, business orientation and cost sensitivity that are inescapably necessary.
On top of these, the former Legal and Compliance Manager at Capital Markets Authority identified the optimization of the relationship between people, processes and technology as an important key enabler for the in house counsel’s execution.
Nonetheless, he cautioned that this should be done carefully to ensure cost-friendly and clear processes.
With a particular focus on leadership in crisis, the president of Uganda Law society, expounded on the challenges and opportunities for in-house counsel. She noted more strategic and increased participation of in-house counsel in the decision making at the highest levels of their organisations.
“It is time to declutter your litigation portfolio and get some cases settled. It is time to adopt that online case management system you have always put off.” She said while emphasising the need for in-house counsel to rise from just managing to lead, through thinking for their team and the organisation.
“The opportunity in COVID is that organisations are willing to listen more so it is an opportunity to amp the ethical standards of the organisation.” the Senior Manager Legal services at National Water and Sewerage Cooperation also mentioned.
On the opportunities in the Post COVID era, she maintained that, In house counsel can exploit a new role as employees seek counsel on their tenure, health issues, and wills among others together with driving policies through quickly generating directive compliant policies.
Mr Micheal K. Mugabi, further enumerated the role of the In-house Counsel, from the rarely rich perspective of a Chief Executive Officer with over 20 experience as an industry professional at the helm of several bodies.
In delivering his synopsis, he offered the audience a view of the traditional approach to and of in-house counsel. They have only been consulted on a reactionary basis with the assumption that they give services when something has gone wrong.
A head of a company has once been quoted saying that “The role a lawyer has in this company is to tell me how close to the edge I can go without falling off.” Even more, the In House Counsel has been restrictively viewed by many as a traditionally risk-averse concerning any organisations strategic goals and this has posed them as a bottleneck to innovation and creativity. To this end, the seasoned lawyer and manager expressed how outdated and ineffective this approach has become.
He argued that since organisations are going through rapid changes, their service providers must in turn also change to meet the day to day needs of the organisation. Faced with heavy regulation, stiff competition and rapidly expanding economies, In House counsel need to take a proactive approach in managing the legal risks within an organisation’s processes.
Therefore, the United Kingdom’s Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Administrators fellow called on lawyers to have wide knowledge; be readily available for consultation on a first-hand basis; provide business and strategic support through understanding the business needs, and fully explore the 4th industrial-technological revolution in all their operations. This, in his view, would require lawyers to be analytical, innovative, service-driven, flexible, knowledgeable, emotionally intelligent and humble.
Like Her excellency Pheona Wall has observed, In House counsel have made shifts in the way they lead in many expedient and ingenious ways. With the ever-changing times, this shift is expected to see In house counsel fully taking on the contemporary approach to give relevance to the function and organisations.
Darwin postulated many years ago that “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” This is very true for the role of In House Counsel in Uganda and the world at large.