Banish the word “client” from the law department’s vocabulary

I took notice at a recent conference when Ben Heineman, the former general counsel of General Electric, criticized law department lawyers who think in terms of their “clients.” In Heineman’s view, that term and framework tends to separate an in-house lawyer from the person the lawyer is counseling. Heineman drilled into everybody’s consciousness that as lawyers they are part of the company and are working with their colleagues.

This contrarian position differs from what many general counsel try to drum into their troops: demonstrate a client-service point of view, they repeat. The attitude those general counsel are trying to dispel is a post-office mentality, where employees have no choice but to come to the law department and how you treat them is not very important. The law department enjoys a monopoly and doesn’t have to go out of its way for its customers.

To those general counsel, a client orientation means to make efforts to keep the client satisfied, clients who will seek out the law department for the value of its counsel. Heineman has skipped over that change in mindset and assumed that his lawyers were that close to the people they counseled.

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