GC Role Evolving As Pandemic, Other Issues Bring Changes

By Michele Gorman
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Law360 (November 16, 2020, 10:42 PM EST) -- The role of the general counsel continues to change — and in many cases expand — in 2020, as the majority of top corporate lawyers during the pandemic manage employee well-being and worry about privacy and data protection, according to a new study shared with Law360 on Monday.

Only 19% of general counsel interviewed said the scope of their position wasn't affected this year, and just 16% said their legal team isn't "playing a key role in the timing, considerations and approach for the return to the office of employees," according to "The General Counsel Report 2021: Rising to Today's Challenges and Building Resilience for the Future," published by FTI Consulting Inc.

For years the general counsel role has evolved to become a crucial strategic partner, and 2020 appears to follow that trend, the report says.

"The events that have defined 2020 will be marked as pivotal turning points on many critical fronts," the study says. "GCs have been at the forefront of these issues, persisting in evolving their roles during a period that most describe as the most challenging of their careers."

For the study, sponsored by FTI and Relativity, Ari Kaplan of Ari Kaplan Advisors interviewed 31 general counsel mostly from colleges and Fortune 1000 companies in industries spanning consumer products, life sciences, banking, insurance, and technology and telecommunications. Kaplan conducted the interviews between Aug. 11 and Sept. 2.

Most of the general counsel said they're now tasked with assessing and recommending policies that balance maintaining business with the health and safety of employees, on top of their traditional legal duties, according to the report.

Kaplan asked participants about the top area of legal risk for businesses. Most corporate counsel said they're worried about privacy, data protection and security, followed by COVID-19 business and workforce implications, and then by intellectual property loss.

Meanwhile, legal departments are adapting to remote work, as well as the technology that accompanies the virtual environment. Their confidence in technology grew by more than 15% since 2019, according to the study.

And one-third of the respondents said they now use artificial intelligence, such as automated processes, machine learning tools and advanced analytics, for legal tasks — compared with 29% in 2019, the study found.

Ultimately, the report points out that many of the current challenges will likely continue into the new year and possibly beyond.

"The burden of maintaining business resiliency and stability in this environment will continue to fall on the GC's shoulders," the report says.

The findings, which FTI said would be released more widely Tuesday, is part of the organization's second annual study of corporate legal departments. In 2019, 97% of respondents said general counsel were transitioning to more of a business strategist.

That report "revealed a marked shift in the role of the GC from the 'office of no,' to an important contributor to business strategy," Daryl Teshima, a senior managing director with FTI's technology division, said in a statement Monday. "The events of this year have further accelerated this shift."

The conclusions support other recent reports, as well as sentiments widely expressed by general counsel throughout the year. Over the past few months, in-house counsel across sectors have told Law360 that they're being asked to do more and deal with novel and unforeseen issues that sometimes expand beyond their traditional expertise and apply to a larger business context.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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