“Trusted legal advisor” – an overused cliché that in truth has rare application

At one time, the term “consigliore” embodied for lawyers the notion of the completely trusted confidante and advisor. The term doesn’t show up much these days (See my post of Aug. 28, 2005: common desire to be seen as a consigliore.). Perhaps it has been elbowed aside by “trusted legal advisor” (TLA).

Much as “bet the company” litigation gets far more play than its actual frequency deserves, the so too the exalted status of “trusted legal advisor” appears in print and at conferences much more than those who have earned it exist in real life. Agreed, many partners at law firms have earned the respect of their in-house clients; their clients go to them regularly for certain kinds of matters, like their services, and value their advice. That service relationship, it seems to me, represents a basic attorney-client bond but it doesn’t reached the pedestal of “I trust you and need you completely for the toughest calls.”

Technical proficiency and economic efficiency demonstrated over time doesn’t reach the connotation of “trusted legal advisor” – a person who makes the really tough judgment calls that require courage, grey hair, magisterial knowledge, gravitas. Only every now and then does a general counsel look for that kind of penetrating perspicuity – a hostile tender offer, a CEO charged with harassment, the anti-trust threat of breakup, “telephone number” damages (10 digits, billions of dollars), a dawn raid by the SEC, a headline disaster. We should try not to dilute powerful terms; TLA should be a privileged, rare accolade.

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