The Role of General Counsel: Influential Members of the Team or Merely Bit Players?

The Author, Leah Teague (Center) with Baylor Lawyers Lee Roy Calderon, JD ’12 (L)
and Justin Chakrabarty, JD ’12 (R)
Leah Teague

Recently I was in front of about 150 lawyers who work in a general counsel’s office at one of the Texas public university systems – mostly Longhorn lawyers within the University of Texas system but a few Aggie lawyers mixed in. To my surprise and delight, 4 Baylor Lawyers also were in attendance. The topic was Lawyers as Leaders. The invitation was the result of an article I wrote for the Texas Bar Journal and a podcast interview with Rocky Dhir, CEO & President, Atlas Legal Research, LP and host of State Bar of Texas Podcasts, who read that article. Rocky and I were invited by Omar Syed, Associate Vice Chancellor & Deputy General Counsel for The University of Texas System and chair of the annual gathering of general counsel lawyers in Austin (who also read the article and listened to the podcast) and wanted us to present the conversation at their annual gathering. I was honored and humbled to have that opportunity to share our work and our passion for our students and the future of our profession.

In preparation, Rocky and I were encouraged to include discussions about the role of lawyers as trusted advisor and leaders. We included such advice as “get to know the departments and schools you advise,” “ask about their work and their goals before trying to solve their legal issues.” We recommended they try to understand enough about the work of the “clients” so that when they have to tell them no, they can say “You can’t do that, but…” and then work to find a solution that will meet their goals when possible. In other words, try to be a problem solver and trusted adviser who adds value – be more than a legal technician.

As the conversation continued, questions were submitted to the host electronically – nothing fancy, simply texted to his phone. One of the questions has stayed with me weeks later, almost haunting me. It went something like this, “But what if the general counsel has instructed you to NOT do anything more than strictly answer the legal question asked?” The question was not: “What if the department does not ask for more than an answer to the legal question presented?” We had addressed that scenario. Attentive lawyers often must use that request for legal advice as the springboard for probing to get the information they need (background, issues, goals, costs, etc.) to help craft an option or two or three.

As soon as the question was asked, in my lawyerly way, I began to wonder what else was behind the question. Being part of a university, I well know how territorial life can be on a campus. Had the young lawyer (at least I assumed her or him to be) overstepped and been dressed down, i.e. stay in your lane? Had the general counsel given that instruction in a particular situation for which that command made sense? Was the office so overwhelmed with work that such an instruction was necessary for survival? Was the lawyer still inexperienced, unproven or perhaps not yet trustworthy?  I don’t know but we were grateful for the validation we received when a lawyer in the audience (who had a seasoned look and demeanor) stood and basically summarized all that we had shared about the need for us, as well as society, to view lawyers as more than “bit” players only to be engaged on the periphery. We need lawyers to be valued members of the team – to be part of the group trying to solve the problem, accomplish the goal or protecting the university – not merely legal specialists.

 We ended our response with the hope that all the general counsel offices have, or work toward, an office culture in which lawyers are encouraged to reach beyond the naked legal question to establish relationships that allow the client (department, school, etc.) to view their lawyers not as nay-sayers, deal killers or legal assistants, but as valued and trusted advisors and university partners. 

Leadership entails influence and impact in positive ways. We all need to help our students see themselves as leaders who have an obligation to serve and who will have many opportunities to help and to make a difference.  To that end, I was encouraged to see several hands go up when I asked who all in the audience serves on a non-profit board or volunteers in a service or pro-bono legal organization.  Part of law school must include a call to arms to all law students, encouraging them to roll up their sleeves and help their communities, thereby showcasing lawyer leadership at a grassroots level.