Updates and advice for attorneys and law departments.

Pathways to Becoming General Counsel Part One: Understanding the Business

I. Becoming General Counsel

"There is no one path to getting to be a GC of an entity. There are multiple ways of doing it. I think that's more true today than it was when I was first in practice."

Going in house is a career move many lawyers find themselves contemplating after surviving their first decade of legal practice. However, there seems to exist a knowledge gap between the dream and the reality of what serving as General Counsel entails. 

Serving as General Counsel offers the allure of focusing on one client, diversifying practice area knowledge, and creating future opportunities beyond those a traditional law firm career might otherwise afford. 

From 1997 to 2020 there was a 233% increase in the number of lawyers employed in house as compared with a 33% increase in traditional law firm employment growth. In other words, in-house staffing is experiencing exponential growth.

The 2022 ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey found that 80% of respondents were reporting directly to the CEO, helping overcome operational issues and weighing in on key business decisions. Moreover, legal leaders are increasingly managing a growing number of business functions, including the following:

  • 80% compliance

  • 55% ethics

  • 51% privacy

  • 40% business risk

In recent years, the General Counsel role has evolved beyond overseeing legal compliance and related issues to, in many cases, serving as an in-house legal expert. General Counsel may also become a member of the C-Suite such as a Senior Legal Vice President, or similar role. 

The foregoing demonstrates rather clearly that serving as General Counsel goes beyond the scope of traditional legal expertise. GCs are expected to understand different business functions including finance, project management, personnel management, and negotiation. 

While a background in business or industry specific experience can offer an obvious advantage, there are many different skill sets that contribute to success. 

Soft skills:

  • Absolute integrity
  • Leadership acumen
  • Strategic use of legal knowledge
  • Curiosity and willingness to learn
  • Sharp decision making
  • Ambition
  • Judgment
  • Discernment

Technical Legal Knowledge:

  • Labor and Employment
  • Risk Management
  • Industry specific compliance
  • Corporate transactional
  • Corporate governance
  • Litigation, especially as relating to disput management and risk
  • Executive compensation
  • Tax implications
  • Securities regulations

II. The Experts Weigh In

Sterling Miller, an experienced in-house legal leader and writer of the blog Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel, explained the intricacies of the General Counsel position by illuminating the broader view of the kind of knowledge desirable in order to be a strategic leader.

Miller states:

It is impossible to think strategically without a thorough understanding of:

  • how your company makes money;
  • its products and services;
  • its important customers and vendors;
  • its competitors;
  • its business plans and strategy

In the fall of 2022, Assigned Counsel® hosted a roundtable discussion titled Pathways to Becoming General Counsel.

One of our panelists, Rosemarie Thomas, Esq., Executive Vice President and General Counsel shared her experience that,

“As you take the initiative to learn the intricacies of the business — learn the products, the services, learn how the business makes its bottom-line revenue — you inherently become able to speak in key business terms as well as incorporate the legal necessities. As a result, you gain a valuable seat at the table because they’re no longer envisioning you as the lawyer who’s going to shut down what they want to do but as an asset in assisting the business to the end game.

Another panelist, Nancy Peterson, Esq., Executive Vice President and North America General Counsel, provided a helpful analogy to how keen observational skills could lead to strategic advantages and in house success:

“Watch the choreography and the cadence in the organization. Watch how things get done, who is called to what meetings, even who is copied on certain emails. These nuances are important within the organizational dynamics of companies of all sizes and industries. At the end of the day, you are judged on your effectiveness and results, so the ebb and flow of the company’s functional subtleties are critical to navigate in order to deliver legal services that advance the business goals of the company.”

III. A Different Way of Thinking

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

One of the most common refrains shared by the lawyers in Pathways to Becoming General Counsel was the realization that organizations tend to harbor an internal prejudice against lawyers as the kill joys of the company. Colleagues perceive attorneys as naysayers and doomsday predictors. Instead of feeding into this trope, in-house counsel has the opportunity to change not only the perception of what it is that they do but also of the value they add to the company.

One attorney shared, for example, how she decided to become a part of several different committees within her organization so that she could get to know those aspects of the business more intimately. As a result, she was able to write critiques for those subcommittees describing the potential roadblocks of certain business deals or acquisitions being considered in addition to offering different potential options that could help “keep everyone out of the orange suits.”

As John Wright, Esq., another panelist, aptly stated, “Your job is not to tell people why they can’t do something… [The issue is] not that what [the organization] want[s] to accomplish is somehow wrong. It may be [a matter of]…how you get there. And so, your job is to be the person to help them find a way, do it, and just not say no so much as how.”

Put another way, “You’re looking for people who have the ability to inspire others to action, and persuade other people, as you said, to the can-do approach from a lawyer perspective. But also, someone who can be an independent thinker [while simultaneously] listening to lots of different points of views,” said Nancy Peterson, Esq.

In sum, there are many skills that contribute to serving as General Counsel. The different career paths to reaching an in-house setting, as well as the ways to further expand a relevant skill set and engage in continued learning will be discussed in future blog posts. 

For many more valuable insights from legal leaders, check out our eBook:

Assigned Counsel Incorporated has been supporting in-house legal leaders for over three decades with qualified, practice-area specific temporary attorneys. Our recruiters have all worked as practicing attorneys. We speak your language and provide cost-effective solutions for overwhelming workloads, staff absences, and any potential knowledge or expertise gaps. We’d love to talk with you about how a temporary attorney can help balance your legal department’s staffing challenges.

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