For major matters such as class action defenses, acquisitions of public companies, and significant SEC filings, the top lawyer – the chief legal officer – typically approves which law firm to hire.
But when a 2002 study commissioned by Lex Mundi (conducted by Altman Weil) reported that in an international group of law departments 92 percent of “chief legal officers or general counsel select or direct the selection process of outside counsel” my inner skeptic twitched.
In law departments with more than, say, 20 lawyers, the head litigator or IP lawyer or employment lawyer often hires firms without consulting the general counsel. For the largest portion of work done by outside counsel matters little to the top lawyer.
This is not to say that the general counsel avoids ultimate responsibility for retention decisions (instructing firms, as the British say). It is to say that most decisions pass by fairly routinely – especially since many firms have a stable of go-to firms or a list of approved counsel [See my post of April 18, 2005 on British panels.].