The case for generalist in-house lawyers

6 min read

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Last updated: Oct. 18, 2021

LOD has worked with thousands of in-house teams around the world for well over a decade. Over this time, we’ve worked hand in hand with some of the best in-house lawyers and we’ve seen the power of pragmatic lawyers with a diverse range of skills.

There is more to a generalist lawyer than simply having a wide legal skillset. They bring multiple lenses to your organisation’s problems, which means they can often see a greater variety of solutions – whether it be legal or commercial in nature. Against the trend towards increasing legal specialism, we’re putting forward a case for a wide-ranging in-house lawyer. We’re pushing against the phrase: “jack of all trades, master of none”.

Embrace the foxes

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This can be interpreted a few ways, but the broad essence of it is that the ‘hedgehog’ applies a single organising principle to everything they do, while the ‘fox’ employs a range of different strategies and draws on a wide variety of experiences. In the context of the legal profession, there is and always will be a need for hedgehogs, whether it be tax specialists or competition law experts. But this article is about heralding the importance of the foxes.

Working in uncertainty

While it seems glib to suggest today’s world is more uncertain and ambiguous than ever, it does seem nonetheless true. We have more laws and regulations than ever, and they intersect and interrelate in more complicated ways. Globalised trade, intricate supply chains and the geo-political turbulence of the 21st century have made life for an in-house lawyer significantly less straightforward than before.

In this environment of high uncertainty, foxes are typically better. This is because generalists are used to nuance and dealing with conflicting approaches. They are comfortable with ambiguity, and it doesn’t impair their decision-making. Having experienced a variety of domains, the fox is more adept at handling the growing sets of ‘VUCA’ problems (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) that face in-house legal and risk professionals.

Deeper problem-solving (and smarter solutions)

Often issues that present themselves to a legal department are not actually legal in nature. Something may look like a ‘legal’ problem on the surface, but often it can be a symptom of an underlying issue that isn’t legal at all. While specialists might struggle to see the root cause of something from outside of their domain, generalists tend to be more familiar with bottoming out issues and are better at spotting the commercial drivers behind an issue.

This also means that they can design more effective solutions for an organisation – the answer is not always legal! While specialists can fall prey to Maslow’s Law of the Instrument, the foxes of the world bring a much larger toolset (to mix metaphors slightly). Instead of seeing a formal legal solution as the only option, the generalist can imagine commercial pathways to solve an issue. For example, you may be within your legal rights to write a letter of demand, but this doesn’t mean it’s the smarter course of action. A sensible commercial solution may end up bringing great value to the organisation – a solution that more easily appears to the generalist.

Competency of delegation

Knowing your limits is naturally easier if you’ve worked across a few domains and had the experience of reaching those limits! Why is this helpful for in-house legal? For example, if you’re looking at a contract, there are going to be a myriad of legal issues that come up and it can be impossible to be across all of them in-depth. So, then knowing whether or not it’s something that you need to engage with someone who does have deeper domain expertise becomes another skill. The project management of that delegation then becomes another skill – and one naturally suited to a fox. Also, the delegation might not be to another lawyer but rather to someone from HR, marketing, PR, comms or finance. The generalist will have a better grip on who is in the best position to resolve it.

The shape of you

The profession has been discussing the ‘shape’ of a lawyer for a long time. I-Shape defines a classical conception of a lawyer – they know the black letter law. T-Shape suggests a wider base of business skills with that same deep legal specialism. O-Shape and Delta-Shape are the latest iterations and are similar in nature. These frameworks emphasise the importance of a wider array of skills for effective lawyering – communication, collaboration, data literacy etc. This isn’t academic navel-gazing – easyJet recently made O-Shape lawyers an element of their RFP for panel firms (read more here). A fox has an affinity for wider skillsets and holds a natural advantage in fulfilling these ‘shapes’ that are increasingly desired by clients and stakeholders across organisations.

As you climb, responsibilities widen

Just as when you climb a mountain and your view widens, so do your responsibilities widen as you rise in your career. General Counsels have the broadest remit of any in-house lawyer. The scope of their work is so wide, that many of them are known as an organisation’s strategic thinker, rather than strict legal counsel. They often hold formal ownership of other organisational functions like external affairs, government relations, external communications and ESG. Here, the fox holds a clear and natural advantage.


Jack of all trades, master of none. Hopefully, we can put this phrase to bed – at least in the context of in-house legal professionals. Bringing a wide range of skills is a vital part of the effectiveness of in-house counsel – it helps you manage uncertainty, solve multi-faceted problems and design smarter solutions.

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