The evolving role of general counsel: Securing a seat at the table

Technological, social, and economic events have changed the legal and regulatory landscape. There was a time when in-house legal departments and the general counsel had…

Andy Teichholz profile picture
Andy Teichholz

January 17, 20247 minute read

Technological, social, and economic events have changed the legal and regulatory landscape. There was a time when in-house legal departments and the general counsel had more clear-cut roles that were well understood by everyone, lawyers, and non-lawyers alike.

However, it is not that simple anymore.

The new role of the general counsel  

We have seen seismic changes on an unprecedented scale. And it’s crucial to recognize that the legal industry continues to navigate a period of significant regulatory, societal, and geopolitical uncertainty. The global COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, corporate citizenship responsibilities, large-scale cybersecurity breaches, and new data privacy regulations, among other things, emphasize the need for agility and control over risk management activities. A more complex regulatory environment has emerged with greater scrutiny by enforcement agencies into compliance activities. In the age of social activism, businesses are very concerned not only with financial penalties but demonstrating trust and avoiding reputational harm. As a result, general counsel no longer limits themselves to a tactical and reactive role, but instead transition into key members of the corporate decision-making team as strategic partners.  

So, what does the new face of the general counsel and chief legal officer (CLO)look like? How can the general counsel succeed? What are they doing to address these challenges to make smarter decisions, optimize operations, reduce costs, and manage risks?

To better understand these challenges and help legal departments leverage technology to optimize operations, OpenText, in partnership with the Corporate Counsel Business Journal (CCBJ) surveyed enterprise legal leaders in our Modern General Counsel Survey.

The Modern General Counsel Survey

We asked 289 general counsel and other in-house legal leaders to respond to a series of questions to better understand their shifting roles and responsibilities, key departmental priorities and challenges, technology investment planned or leveraged to support legal activities, and what are the critical tools needed to maximize ROI and minimize risk. 

The results fell into a few key areas:

  • The shifting and evolving role of the general counsel
  • Productivity initiatives and departmental priorities
  • Technology investment and partnering with the CIO
  • The emergence of AI and critical tools to maximize ROI and minimize risk

General Counsel Survey Results

The General Counsel is an Influential C-Suite partner

87% of all respondents agree or strongly agree that the role of the general counsel is shifting from the traditional legal advisor to a strategic and influential partner to other senior executives.

A stronger voice, greater agility, and innovation are necessary to weather changing expectations, increased volume and complexity of data, new regulations, and cost pressures. These factors have had a significant impact on the role of general counsel. This includes increased pressure to respond to new threats fuelled by new regulations and compliance mandates, drive profitability and business outcomes, and digitally transform their department.

69% identified expanded responsibilities to other risk areas including cybersecurity, data privacy, and risk management. 55% cited an increase in regulations and compliance mandates as another primary driver. In terms of risk management, 55% also said profitability and business outcomes require stronger risk management. When pressed on what they were most focused on for improving their department, managing risk proactively topped the findings at 70% of all respondents. It is expected that risk now firmly sits at the center of every conversation in the modern legal department, and we suspect this will continue.

General Counsel’s Role in Productivity Initiatives

Our survey asked general counsel to share their biggest opportunities for productivity improvement for their department. Key areas identified included the need to streamline operations through optimized workflows (46%), improve cross-departmental alignment (44%), and automate manual tasks being performed by the staff (42%). 

Essential Partnering with the CIO

Our survey results revealed that in today’s legal department, technology is no longer just a nice-to-have but an essential tool to be leveraged effectively, with C-Suite support, to adequately protect and serve the business.

Closely tied to the need for greater cross-functional alignment, 72% of all respondents recognized that the CIO now plays a critical or important role in the delivery of legal innovation strategies. They highlighted that the key activities they rely on IT support include mapping solutions to existing systems (56%), identifying the right technology solutions to support needs/requirements (54%), and evaluating the full value of technology options including ROI. 40% of respondents noted, importantly, that a lack of IT advocacy and collaboration is preventing the implementation of new technologies. The technical partnership between legal and IT teams will boost adoption by ensuring needs are best met, establishing integrations with key applications, reassessing work dynamics, and driving secure and compliant data handling.

Legal department leaders are clear that they want to facilitate innovation for their organizations, recognizing that automation and other innovations must be implemented to increase productivity and improve performance and collaboration. One such technology the survey explored was the implementation of AI-based legal tech solutions to modernize legal departments. AI is poised to play a pivotal role in enhancing the efficiency of in-house legal departments – allowing in-house teams to minimize time spent on mundane or routine tasks and spend more time on higher-value work – while refining their operational processes.  

For example, almost half (49%) of all respondents believe AI could assist with the automation and simplification of time-consuming and error-prone manual processes while 41% see automation of manual tasks as the biggest opportunity for productivity improvements for their legal departments.

Crucial in the move to becoming a more strategic partner, over half (60%) believe that AI would free up time to perform higher valued work, demonstrating the power delegating routine activities could have on empowering legal professionals to shift their focus onto more strategic endeavors.

In short, over half (55%) agree AI would boost the productivity of in-house legal teams.

How do you plan to use AI to meet departmental priorities?

We are conducting a follow-up survey with CCBJ on investment in critical AI tools, including GenAI, to maximize ROI and minimize risk. We welcome your input and participation.

Begin the survey

The General Counsel is more than a cost center

Our survey makes the following clear: the modern general counsel and CLO roles have evolved from legal advisors into something more. The modern General Counsel must be strategically relevant and innovative to thrive in the digital age. They are using solutions to support business colleagues, deliver better staff experiences, and provide greater control over work performed by outside providers. More than a cost center, the GC is becoming an influential C-Suite partner expected to improve business outcomes in addition to managing legal risk, meeting compliance mandates, and safeguarding the organization’s reputation. Trained to mitigate risks, they must now focus on how to best manage risks in highly uncertain environments with new compliance-led responsibilities.

However, in-house legal departments should not work in a silo. CIOs must equip legal teams with the right, innovative technology – such as AI – to help support a more modern practice on its journey to not only survive, but thrive, in the digital age.

Want to learn more about the shifting role of the general counsel?

Download the position paper The Modern General Counsel: Legal Advisor and strategic business partner for further analysis.

Listen to select highlights from our recent webcast with CCBJ that explores the general counsel 2.0 survey and report in more depth as we touch upon what your peers are saying about the shifting and evolving role of the modern general counsel, how they are becoming an influential C-Suite partner and more.

Discover how the composable OpenText Legal Tech platform can help modernize enterprise legal departments with intelligent, AI-based legal industry technology solutions and trusted services spanning all enterprise legal data management needs

We offer powerful solutions for eDiscovery, legal content, and knowledge management, internal regulatory and compliance investigations, breach response analysis, legal holds, and more.

Share this post

Share this post to x. Share to linkedin. Mail to
Andy Teichholz avatar image

Andy Teichholz

Andy Teichholz is the Sr. Industry Strategist for Compliance and Legal at OpenText. He has over 20 years of experience in the legal and compliance industry as a litigator, in-house counsel, consultant, and technology provider. Andy is focused on helping businesses succeed with digital transformation. In this capacity, he has served as a trusted advisor to customers by leveraging his business acumen, industry experience, and technical knowledge to advise on regulatory compliance, information governance, and data privacy issues as well as support complex litigation and regulatory investigations.

See all posts

More from the author

How today’s General Counsel is changing course to better manage risk on the new digital sea 

How today’s General Counsel is changing course to better manage risk on the new digital sea 

Any business that wants to survive and compete must acknowledge the risks it faces in the marketplace, and work within boundaries it considers acceptable to…

4 minute read

eDiscovery is not just for litigation anymore  

eDiscovery is not just for litigation anymore  

Organizations are facing an evolving legal and regulatory landscape involving everything from complying with stringent data privacy laws to combating sophisticated cyber threats that force…

5 minute read

Why employee data protection is a top compliance priority in 2023

Why employee data protection is a top compliance priority in 2023

Protecting employee privacy is not a new thing. Some of the most sensitive personal information collected and managed in the workplace – personnel files, employment…

6 minute read

Stay in the loop!

Get our most popular content delivered monthly to your inbox.