Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lawyers with Just One Client

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lawyers with Just One Client

Article excerpt

THE ballroom level at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., is below the lobby. An escalator lowered conference attendees through a vast atrium, past a towering sculpture of birds rising in flight, into an ocean of charcoal and navy suits.

Such a display of wool and polyester probity would leaden some spirits, but not that of a legal-affairs writer covering the annual meeting of the American Corporate Counsel Association (ACCA) this month. It would be interesting to rub elbows for three days with several hundred in-house lawyers for American companies.

Not so long ago, company lawyers were regarded by many of their law-firm brethren with a bit of condescension. Oh, sure, some legal heavyweights went in-house, like former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who headed up IBM's huge legal staff after he left Washington.

But other than the general counsels for Fortune 500 corporations, company lawyers were often seen as second-tier - people who couldn't cut it in law firms or who cautiously opted for the security of a company salary.

Whereas lawyers traditionally valued their independence as professionals, free to give clients tough advice and even to jettison clients they disapproved of, company attorneys - it was implied - were kept lawyers who had to kowtow to senior executives the way any other corporate minions do.

Besides, it was said, in-house legal work was boring, repetitive, unsophisticated, lacking in intellectual excitement. A corporate law department was where you went when you didn't make partner.

There may have been, and perhaps still is, some truth to these stereotypes. But much has changed in company legal staffs. Fewer in-house attorneys fit the description of distant and somewhat declasse cousins to their law-firm counterparts. These days, a lot of first-rate legal work is performed in-house.

President Clinton recognized the quality of many corporation lawyers when he nominated Zoe Baird, general counsel for the Aetna Life & Casualty Company, to be attorney general early this year. The nomination ran afoul of Nannygate, but most observers acknowledged that Ms. …

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