The general counsel position has evolved to take on expanded responsibilities and gain increased influence. To better understand the environment in which GCs operate, ALM Intelligence and Morrison & Foerster launched the biannual GC Up-at-Night project in spring 2017. The recent release of the fall 2017 report (available here, at no cost) marks the end of the first year of this long-term project.

The study aims to look more carefully at some of the key factors driving changes to in-house leaders’ priorities.  Understanding these changes are crucial first steps in identifying new approaches and solutions that will allow general counsel to meet the demands of their growing portfolio.

The project partners, to support this objective, fielded online surveys of in-house leaders during the spring and fall 2017 to measure sentiment around five broad categories of substantive issues: intellectual property, risk and crisis management, litigation, regulations and enforcement, and privacy and data security. Taken as a whole, our 2017 research provides a window into general counsels’ current mindset and serves as a strong indicator of those areas that will require the closest attention in 2018.

The structure of the survey itself has allowed for the consideration of each issue in isolation, but make no mistake, they are inextricably linked. This overlap is evident when looking across the five major issues and their chief areas of concern. These concerns are often unified by a common theme: uncertainty.

What’s more, the fact that many businesses now operate on a global scale has served to increase that uncertainty. Many survey respondents reported having difficulty keeping up with regulatory changes and cross-border differences, whether it be ramping up for the implementation of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or protecting critical intellectual property in China.

To make matters worse, the foregoing concerns are exacerbated by a lack of resources (e.g., budget, staffing, and technology) – a sentiment expressed throughout the survey and represented by the respondent quotes below.

There are only so many hours in the day. Just as survey respondents were asked to consider the importance of each category, they were asked to identify the amount of time their department dedicates to each one. We find that both of these metrics are roughly divided into three tiers with regulations and enforcement at the top, followed by privacy and data security and risk and crisis management, and then intellectual property and litigation trailing

The study results reveal an imbalance across all five of the major areas, in the time dedicated to an issue when compared to that issue’s perceived importance. The chart below, which compares the survey responses to the two fundamental questions — the amount of time dedicated to addressing each of the substantive issues and their perceived importance — illustrates that imbalance.

And, perhaps most disconcerting, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel for in-house leaders. According to our research, from the spring to fall surveys, the disparity increased across all of the issue areas suggesting that legal departments are at risk of becoming overwhelmed.

So, what will the next year bring? What new challenges will arise and creative solutions will be developed? More than ever before, the corporate law department is a significant force in shaping the future of a business, and through the GC Up-at-Night research, we will continue to monitor the key developments and trends.

To learn more about the GC Up-at-Night project:

Click here to download the free GC Up-at-Night report.

The GC Up-at-Night project is an ongoing study. The underlying survey will be fielded twice a year, with the next iteration slated for spring 2018. If you are an in-house leader and would like to be considered for the panel, click here.