Book Review: The Generalist Counsel: How Leading General Counsel are Shaping Tomorrow’s Companies

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Dubney, Prashant, and Eva Kripalani, The Generalist Counsel:  How Leading General Counsel are Shaping Tomorrow’s Companies (Oxford:  Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), ISBN 978-0-19-989235-8 (softcover), xvii + 193p p. (incl. index), $49.95.

As law librarians, our work supports a profession often deemed incapable of innovation.   Not so in the office of the general counsel –or the generalist counsel, as Dubney and Kripalani dub this position.  The authors, Kripalani herself a former general counsel, stake out the world of in-house legal work as incredibly dynamic, spurring changes in not only the companies GCs serve but also making broader waves across the legal profession.

So what is a generalist counsel?  No longer a “minor management figure,” the authors claim,  “[t]oday, leading General Counsel are sought out by their peers on the senior leadership team for strategic input to decisions that will move the business forward” (p. 2, xiv).  This term speaks to a “significantly broader skill set” than that traditionally honed among general counsel or law firm partners, for that matter.  Generalist Counsels not only master the law but also function as a key part of the corporate team.  Success in this position requires a host of proficiencies not often instilled in the traditional law firm setting:  communication, trust-building, understanding the corporation’s business in detail, and critical risk-assessment.

Just as generalist counsel are being shaped by the new business environment, they are shaping a new legal environment and join this evolution.  The authors offer some advice about how law firms can improve their relationships with in-house counsel.  Law firms will face greater scrutiny in light of the more sophisticated skill set of their clients, and they will benefit from heightened attention to the business context of their advice.

The authors rely heavily on personal narratives to convey their vision of the generalist counsel and how to become one, providing concrete illustrations.  One of the most memorable of these came from Jeff Kindler.   After a stint at a firm, Kindler became general counsel at McDonald’s.  When the company bought Boston Market, Kindler saw opportunity where others did not.  As a result, he was given executive control of brand, acting not as its general counsel but as its president.  Kindler’s story illustrates the interwoven nature of legal judgment and business acumen the authors see as the essence of the generalist counsel.

 The authors successfully craft a broader framework from these stories in many ways, but the book could deploy that framework more effectively.  For example, the authors describe various paths to achieve the generalist counsel title, outlining three main categories:  fatalist, careerist, opportunist.  Described in the second chapter, these labels loose some heft, as the authors do not leverage them throughout the work.  In spite of these occasional missed opportunities, however, this title remains a valuable one for most libraries.

The authors provide lots of advice for those interested in becoming a generalist counsel.  But it also merits a place in both law firm and law school libraries.  Firms can learn much about how to improve their relationships with and service to in-house counsel.  Law schools will also benefit, in part because the authors offer specific curricular advice, including project management courses.

Susan Azyndar is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University.

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