Many companies would be well served with an in-house attorney. However, this is a luxury most small businesses cannot afford. This is a short blurb about how the relationship can work and be structured.
I’ve served as general counsel and have been the attorney of record for a many businesses and can tell you that I was used in ways most wouldn’t expect. Sure, there was the typical contract review, an occasional lawsuit and for employment-related tasks. But an experienced business lawyer is more of a “consigliere” than a technician (and I am a wartime consigliere). After trust has been established, I was generally asked to consult on every significant business decision — and lots of seemingly minor ones that were actually very important.
Despite the jokes, most business owners know a good lawyer is a trusted adviser who isn’t beholden to anyone and can be spoken to in absolute confidence, within reason, of course. We are objective and have a nose for details, while keeping in mind the big picture. Generally, we’re a pretty good final station for any idea before it goes live — and not just to ensure legal compliance.
Yes, small-and medium-sized businesses would benefit from a GC — but this probably isn’t a 40-hour-a-week position at most companies.
That’s why there is such a thing as “outside” general counsel, which is a business attorney who gets to know a company and is on a flat fee retainer in exchange for a set amount of service hours per month. It’s almost always less expensive for the company and the flat-fee arrangement allows for a more free-flow of information due to the lack of “clock watching.”
For example, I will work in blocks of time (5, 10, or 15 hours) on a discounted rate. In exchange, I’m available for anything my clients need and in any way: on-site, telephone, email, Skype, etc. Clients call on my experience as a business owner, a former big firm attorney and as someone who they know will look out for their best interests and give honest answers.
This is just one example of how the relationship can work. There is always a creative way to structure an outside general counsel engagement that can fit any need while avoiding the expense and overhead of having an employee.