ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, in-house counsel, risk assessment by in-house counsel
Over the last thirty years or so, as the number of in-house counsel rose and their role increased in scope and prominence, increased attention has been given the various challenges these lawyers face under the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, from figuring out who is the client the in-house lawyer represents, to navigating conflicts of interest, maintaining independence, and engaging in a multijurisdictional practice of law. Less attention, to date, has been given to business risk assessment, perhaps in part because that function appears to be part of in-house counsel’s role as a business person rather than as a lawyer. Overlooking the role of in-house counsel in assessing risk, however, is a risky proposition, because risk assessment constitutes for some in-house counsel a significant aspect of their role, a role that in turn informs and shapes how in-house counsel perform other more overtly legal tasks. For example, wearing her hat as General Counsel, a lawyer for the entity-client may opine and explain issues of compliance with the law. Wearing her hat as the Chief Legal Officer, however, the same lawyer may now be called upon as a member of business management to participate in the decision whether to comply with the law.
After outlining some of the traditional challenges faced by in-house counsel under the Rules, this short essay explores risk assessment by in-house counsel and its impact on their role and function under the Rules. It argues that the key to in-house lawyers’ successful navigation of multiple roles, and, in particular, to their effective assessment of business risk is keen awareness of the various hats they are called upon to wear. Navigating these various roles may not be easy for lawyers, whose training and habits of mind often teach them to zoom in on legal risks to the exclusion of business risks. Indeed, law schools continue to teach law students “to think like a lawyer” and law firms, the historical breeding grounds for in-house counsel positions, in a world of increased specialization master the narrower contemplation of legal questions. Yet the present and future of in-house counsel practice demand of its practitioners the careful and gradual coming to terms, buildup and mastery of business risk analysis skills, alongside the cultivation of traditional legal risk analysis tools.
Compliance & Ethics, ABA Antitrust Section Newsletter, Summer 2015