Specialists are Out and Generalists are in for Enterprises Looking to Make the Most of their In-house Legal Talent


With multiple forecasts anticipating a slow down in hiring in 2024, and discussions at Davos highlighting the potential impact of AI on the economy and jobs, business leaders are grappling with a complex picture when it comes to resourcing.  

In many cases, they will be looking ahead to chart how they do more with less effectively, deploy resources creatively, and identify the skillsets they need to hit growth targets and retain a competitive edge in 2024 and beyond.  

In this context, maximising the value delivered by their in-house legal team is an increasing priority for businesses. How are they doing that, and what are the attributes and technical know-how employers prize most in this turbulent world?  

All the hail the generalist: value beyond core technical skills 

In positions across the C-suite, in the current climate senior executives are increasingly asked to adapt and lend their resource to other areas of the business. The changing role played by the General Counsel and their team is an example of this trend. 

The GC position is quickly evolving to become an invaluable role at the heart of the C-suite. Business leaders are no longer simply looking for shrewd legal minds – they want GCs who can deploy their knowledge across a range of departments, fighting fires where and when needed.  

This shift is not confined to the GC level, and as legal departments begin to work more collegially, businesses are looking for a range of softer skills in their legal talent. These traits include versatility, innovative thinking, commercial awareness and proactivity. 

Taking these attributes in turn, versatility is key in legal teams in the current climate when businesses have had to restructure. With fewer resources, legal teams need to be able to turn their hands to a range of subject matter. As much as possessing the technical know-how to ‘switch lanes’ in terms of task and subject matter, this is about employees exhibiting a curious mindset and a hunger to learn. Today’s in-house lawyers should be able to support different teams across the enterprise. Innovative thinking is important as employers increasingly need incoming talent to immerse themselves in new technologies, using their creativity to solve difficult challenges.  

Turning to commercial awareness and business acumen, we have often heard this is the key skill lacking in incoming generations. Legal talent can set themselves apart from the pack by demonstrating a keen eye for market trends, a strategic mindset for business objectives, and strong financial literacy. Unfortunately, all too often without finely-calibrated hiring, in-house lawyer appointments can lack these essential qualities.  

An attribute allied to both versatility and business acumen is proactivity. Amidst complex global geopolitical developments, legal talent needs to be mindful of the fast-evolving regulatory landscape. This proactive approach is highly desirable to employers.  

An up-to-date knowledge base: embracing AI  

It would be hard to ignore the breadth and depth of opportunities across various corporate roles presented by the growth of AI. It was the topic on everyone’s lips at The Economist’s 2023 General Counsel Summit and shows no sign of abating this year.   

While the application of AI may still be in its infancy for many roles, candidates with a keen interest in AI are likely to pique the interest of prospective employers. Specific skills within the digital spectrum that are currently on employers’ wishlist include cybersecurity, cloud computing and data analysis. While these types of skills haven’t typically had a home in the boardroom, they are increasingly becoming valuable for C-suite roles. 

Lawyers with AI expertise will become ever more useful for senior leadership teams.  By offering practical legal insights combined with a sharp commercial eye, this expertise can allow businesses to forge ahead on ethical ways to harness AI, safe in the knowledge that their practices are compliant. 

Creating, and retaining, teams with the right mix of skills  

Though the job market is experiencing a downturn, it remains essentially candidate-driven. In this climate, where agile and adaptable talent can become even more valuable to the business, it is crucial for employers to think carefully about how they attract and retain the right people. The last thing employers want in the current market is to give staff cause to begin to explore whether ‘the grass is greener’ elsewhere. This is clearly bad news for businesses at any time, but all the more so in a tricky economic climate.  

So, what are the secrets to talent retention? Leaders must focus on creating an environment that values the individual, and that takes a creative approach to in-office vs remote work allowing for training, teamwork and relationship building. It is a balance, and while fully remote teams will provide businesses with a bigger candidate pool, it also makes it difficult to onboard new talent and maintain a strong culture. Unsurprisingly, most businesses now operate a hybrid model. MLA’s recent Back-to-Office Survey found that on average legal teams are in the office 2.3 days each week.   

Being intentional about building diversity is important. Creating a diverse team brings obvious benefits: improving cultural competence and ethical awareness, while tending to foster a more collaborative environment and more creative thinking.  

Generational diversity is also key – millennial employees (born between 1981 and 1996) bridge the gap between current and future generations. In place, they support good succession planning, which, when done well, allows room for growth, ensuring that there are clear-cut paths for advancement. Encouraging those who are more junior to be involved in new initiatives or to support other business units creates a pipeline of strategic advisors and leaders who can face any enterprise-wide challenge.  

While the dual forces of the recruitment and economic markets may seem daunting for businesses at present, having to do more with less could in fact offer some blessings in disguise. Taking an open-minded approach to hiring, by focusing on generalists that can deliver cross-departmental impact could reap further rewards down the line. 



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