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A fundamental challenge for general counsel: balancing company vs business unit views

Michael Helfer, the general counsel of Citigroup, addressed the Fifth General Counsel Roundtable, Dec. 6, 2007. As summarized by the Economist Intelligence Unit at 6, Helfer reflected on a fundamental management challenge: “managing a legal function so that it supports the company’s business strategy without being co-opted by any particular business within the company.”

“In-house lawyers represent the company as a whole” runs the truism, but in the hurly-burly of work life, it is seductive for those lawyers to identify with human beings, the clients they talk to on the phone and share meals with in the cafeteria. The tugs of individual representation, however, are little co-options, and erode the corporate-wide view that Helfer espouses. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, as is the price of independence from particular business and staff groups.