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Twenty-five years ago, Robert E. Freer Jr., then vice president and Washington counsel for Kimberly-Clark Corp., got an idea. In-house counsel in the Washington, D.C., area needed a forum to discuss the concerns particular to lawyers who worked in corporate legal departments. “There were unique aspects to our jobs, and we would want to have exchanges with one another on the organizations of our legal departments and legal subjects,” Freer remembers. Freer wrote to the in-house counsel that he knew, did a little additional research about the law departments that then existed in D.C. companies, and invited his colleagues to lunch. He struck a responsive chord. In September 1980, 39 lawyers from 29 corporations in the area agreed to form the Washington Metropolitan Area Corporate Counsel Association (WMACCA). BIG CHANGES In the past 25 years, there have been vast changes in the Washington, D.C., in-house community. When WMACCA first started, “in-house counsel were few in number, other than some household-name companies such as GEICO, Pepco, US Airways,” recalls Kathi Argiropoulos, vice president, secretary, and general counsel of the Airlines Reporting Corp. and WMACCA president in 1990. Today, the number of in-house counsel and the variety of companies and organizations have soared, she says. Washington is no longer a place where government is seen as the only “business.” Martindale Hubbell now lists approximately 800 in-house legal departments in Washington, D.C., and the nearby Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 14 have their headquarters — and legal departments — in the Washington metropolitan area. WMACCA membership reflects this explosion. The chapter now has more than 1,150 members from 500 private sector organizations. Where did all this growth come from? “The dot-com boom and private sector growth in metropolitan D.C.” had a dramatic effect on the ranks of in-house counsel, says Drew McKay, senior vice president and deputy general counsel of Vance International Inc. and WMACCA president in 1996. David Rutstein, former senior vice president and general counsel with Giant Food, and now of counsel at Venable, agrees. In addition, “The most important change in the region has been the proliferation of government outsourcing, which has led to the growth of the government-contractors sector of our local economy,” says Rutstein, who was WMACCA president in 1986. Many of these new companies quickly came to realize the value of in-house counsel. And many companies that already had in-house counsel added breadth and depth to their ranks, so that they could better handle matters in-house. “There is a recognition of the need for counsel — to ensure compliance with applicable laws, to provide sound legal guidance for business planning, and to defend the company from challenges,” Argiropoulos notes. And with the emphasis in corporate America on belt-tightening, more of an organization’s legal work has fallen to in-house counsel. It makes sense that companies would get the best value from lawyers who know the business and the players inside and out. In-house counsel, after all, are on the ground, in the conversations, in the meetings, and in the negotiations. From this “raw data” of an organization’s business concerns, the in-house practitioner has to recognize the issue and determine the approach to resolve it. It is rare that a non-lawyer comes to in-house counsel with a legal issue fully identified for resolution. In-house lawyers are trained to pay attention to costs. Legal departments in corporations have to meet preset budget limits and resolve the issues themselves, if possible. No general counsel wants to hear that the bottom line was affected by outside counsel fees. As a result, outside counsel are typically called upon in two circumstances: for litigation, when large numbers of lawyers are needed to complete a task (such as for transactions or antitrust reviews) or in situations where specialized expertise is required. Modern tools like the Internet have helped in-house counsel meet those increased demands. For example, when Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley, in-house lawyers could go on the Web right away, get the text of the legislation, and access a myriad of analyses explaining the requirements and potential effects. While the demands on in-house counsel have grown, leading to an increase in the size of many in-house departments, corporate law departments are nonetheless lean and must justify each new hire as necessary and able to fill a specific need. Corporations cannot afford to have people on staff who need years of training. Instead, most corporate law departments look to hire lawyers with significant expertise and a proven track record. THE COMPETITION In return, more lawyers are seeing the attraction of moving in-house. Any advertisement for a corporate counsel position yields responses from many highly qualified practitioners, a substantial number of whom come from large firms, prestigious government agencies, and top-notch law schools. Ask any young associate in a law firm how easy or hard it is to get an in-house position and you will receive confirmation of the limited and competitive nature of these jobs. In the past, lawyers moving in-house usually took a big pay cut. But times have changed in that respect, too. Of the 14 Fortune 500 companies with their headquarters in the Washington area, 10 list their general counsel among the five most highly paid employees at the company. While there are variations between large and small departments and among industries, at least at the very top, the compensation package for in-house practitioners can be quite good. McKay notes that the composition of WMACCA membership today also reflects the change in the in-house community. Where it once was a “senior counsel-dominated organization,” WMACCA is now much more diverse, “attracting attorneys at all levels of experience and rank to participate and take leadership roles in the chapter,” he says. In connection with its 25th anniversary, WMACCA is holding a celebration to highlight the revolution that has gone on in corporate law departments since 1980. At a Nov. 3 reception, WMACCA will recognize outstanding lawyers and law departments from the local area. Through its Corporate Counsel Awards and the anniversary celebration, WMACCA hopes to raise the profile of in-house practice and note the vitality of the in-house community in Washington, D.C. Marian S. Block is vice president and associate general counsel of Lockheed Martin Corp. and this year’s WMACCA president. Ilene G. Reid is executive director of WMACCA.

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