Some thoughts on in-house lawyers

Larry Ribstein —  21 November 2011

Those attending the Wisconsin in-house counsel conference this weekend (kudos to Jonathan Lipson for a well-organized and comprehensive program) got a great overview of the problems and opportunities facing the lawyers who work inside corporations.  Here’s some brief observations.

As previously reported, my own contribution focused on how technology might significantly affect in-house lawyers’ work, including by moving many of their tasks to software and non-lawyers.  This has potential implications for the discussions by Larry Hamermesh, Don Langevoort, Deborah DeMott, Steve Schwarcz and Kathleen Cully of the watchdog or gatekeeper responsibilities of in-house lawyers. If in-house lawyers try to become gatekeepers, might this encourage firms to replace their lawyers with software and non-lawyer employees?

Several speakers (Sida Liu, David Wilkins, Christoph Henkel) discussed in-house lawyers outside the U.S. We learned, among other things, that countries such as China and Germany train and accredit lawyers separately for litigation and in-house service. I argued in Practicing Theory and in my paper for this symposium against the one-size-fits-all approach of legal education in the U.S.

The global perspective reinforced my view that U.S corporations and therefore their lawyers need to understand the laws of the many countries they do business in.  Daniel Chow, Mike Koehler, Andrew Spalding and Joe Yockey’s discussions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act also showed that firms need to understand foreign cultures. The U.S.-centric approach of U.S. legal education is increasingly out of step with global markets.

In general, while technology and markets are eroding the market for lawyers, there’s still plenty left for them to do, including in-house. But are U.S. law schools training for this work?

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

2 responses to Some thoughts on in-house lawyers


    In house counsel are in essence the chief competition for law firms, as general counsel initially decide on whether to “make or buy” and where the decision is the latter, the provider is not always a traditional law firm, as I described in . Even where the selected vendor is a traditional law firm, the selected law firm frequently functions as a general contractor, with the client designating non-traditional law firms to provide important aspects of the engagement under the aegis of a traditional law firm.

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