What can happen in 30 years? If you're the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), a lot. Begin with growing from just eight founding members to more than 32,000 members located in 75 countries representing more than 10,000 organizations. Add more than 50 chapters – the 55th just opened in Singapore – and a vast collection of resources. Throw in 18 committees, skilled use of technology and social media, and the necessity to continue to support corporate counsel in an ever-changing environment, and you have an remarkable history that spans just over a quarter of a century. For a more detailed look at how the ACC has grown, what it has accomplished, and the legal profession, Corporate Counsel Connect spoke with James (Jim) Merklinger, General Counsel of ACC.
Jim feels that ACC's primary success story in its 30 years is the phenomenal worldwide growth. Chapters span North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and, with the addition of the Singapore Chapter, Asia. Networking groups reach further, including China, and allow members to connect with one another throughout the globe, an important benefit. "81% of members say that ACC's strong global presence is key to meeting their needs as in-house counsel," says Jim. eGroups, committees, educational programs, and the Annual Meeting are all vital in ensuring these members have a chance to interact, taking advantage of ACC's size and reach to connect with corporate counsel around the world.
Another large success for the association is the ACC Value Challenge. From Jim, "The overall goal of the program is to reconnect the value and costs for legal services, and ACC is focused on promoting dialogue and action among corporate counsel and law firms." Innovation continues to spring from this challenge. A number of this year's ACC Value Champions used new technologies to streamline their various legal processes, such as Twitter-like updates to keep everyone in the law department aware of a project's status, to in-depth contract management systems to legal triage systems to manage an influx of legal work. Through this challenge, ACC has developed methodologies and metrics that corporate counsel can use to assess the strengths and weaknesses of law firms, as well as tools that law firms and legal departments can use to better drive value into legal services provided to clients.
Thirty years of technology has made an impact on the ACC as well, helping to advance the association. Through online eGroups and other means, "members share their knowledge and experience among themselves" says Jim. "I am still amazed at how collegial members are with each other and their willingness to assist one another with challenges that come with the in-house practice of law. This technology has effectively made ACC the largest law department in the world."
It is not just the ACC that has changed in 30 years – the legal profession itself has seen more than its fair share, too. Jim points out how technology has transformed the profession, from ediscovery increasing the cost and complexity of the discovery process, to the ease of electronic filing, to using social media to look for employment and network, to legal process outsourcing, globalization, and more. Downfalls happen with technology, as well. "Technology has also changed expectations on turnaround; unfortunately, everyone expects their email to be immediately answered. That wasn't the case 25 years ago," Jim explains.
Litigation still varies from organization to organization, and "as the world becomes smaller through technology and commerce, the variety of legal issues that are litigated changes from time to time," Jim shares. However, one trend that was not seen 30 years ago is general counsel being named as a defendant in a legal proceedings. A new and important trend to pay attention to, without a doubt. "It's not an avalanche of claims, but it is far more likely now than in the past that if something goes very badly for a company, the general counsel might be named as a defendant," says Jim.
Moreover, corporate counsel themselves have come a long way in the 30 years. However, Jim feels the biggest change "came more by way of evolution than sudden change. When ACC was founded, the perception of in-house lawyers tended to be negative...they were perceived as lawyers who could not get jobs with law firms. Now, there is an almost limitless supply of law firm attorneys that wish to work as in-house counsel. There is much greater appreciation for the role of the in-house counsel."
So what is it like to be the general counsel for an association of your peers? A good challenge, says Jim, and he is pleased to have a position that mirrors the work that members do. "This varies from contract review, to managing employment issues; advising on corporate governance to protecting intellectual property. I also am responsible for compliance with the various laws affecting ACC's 55 incorporated chapters around the world," he explains.
There is also pressure to perform as the board of directors is made up of 30 in-house counsel from some of the largest companies in the world. Not to worry as Jim certainly has some more than a little experience with the association itself. Since starting as ACC's Director of Legal Resources in 1995, he has served in multiple positions for the association for two-thirds of the association's existence.
Jim is looking forward to the ACC Annual Meeting, taking place October 27 – 30 in Los Angeles, California. He wouldn't miss it – he's been at the annual meeting every year since starting with the association, and has come to look forward most "to the interaction I have with our members. They are extremely friendly, interesting people, with many diverse and fascinating backgrounds...[they are] ACC members and I'm positive they are the best of the best."
Other meeting highlights for Jim include a day of sessions specifically related to health law to address the anticipated implementation of the Affordable Care Act, insights from government regulators on current enforcement trends and privilege, panels about the latest global cyber risks and data privacy challenges, and how to avoid the pitfalls of "in-house lawyers who got in trouble."
The future is rich for the profession and ACC. Jim believes the story will continue to be the global growth. "Because ACC's members are its greatest resource and the real value of a membership, it stands to reason that ACC's membership will continue to mirror the growth of the global economy. The ACC global network offers a very cost effective way for in-house counsel to serve their clients."