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Generalist lawyers in-house deserve better than to be tarred as “average”

The general counsel of BAE Systems, Philip Bramwell, is on record that “his goal is to create a world-class legal department with specialists, rather than generalists.” His disparaging words in Corp. Counsel, Vol. 15, Dec. 2008 at 96, about in-house generalists were biting: “Who gets out of bed looking to be average?”

General (commercial) lawyers in law departments should not be anathematized as “average.” They may have average or below average intelligence, experience, or personal attributes, but so might the narrowest specialist lawyer. Meanwhile, their broad remit – handling all the legal issues they can for a business group – demands considerable legal talent. After all, every general counsel is a generalist. What more is there to say?

The lawyers who guide business executives in how to make a profit legally are the backbone of a company’s legal talent. Often, they are expert in the business of their company and the legal constraints under which it operates, not remote from transactions and business imperatives it like a legal specialist may be.

If Bramwell is really saying, “BAE needs smart, competent lawyers who are at the front of the pack,” that is commendable. If Bramwell is insinuating that only lawyers’ lawyers such as antitrust boffins, patent brains, and barristers count, he is completely wrong.

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