Updates and advice for attorneys and law departments.

Pathways to Becoming General Counsel Part Three: Developing Skills and Continued Legal Education

With this, our third and final post in the Becoming General Counsel series, it has hopefully become clear that there is no one singularly perfect background for an aspiring general counsel. Every attorney comes to the job with their own unique background and skill set. Building on your prior experiences, whatever they might be, is the best way to ensure future success and career growth.

A central theme that evolved from our GC virtual roundtable discussion, Pathways to Becoming General Counsel (recording available here), was the importance of continued learning and further development of a general counsel’s skillset.  This post will further elucidate the particular strategies our panelists highlighted in the talk.

Know Your Strengths

What is your specialty? Though there are potentially innumerable legal issues that may arise during the course of practice, the most common legal practice areas that a general counsel might expect to encounter include at least some of the following:

  • Banking and Finance
  • Compliance
  • Contracts
  • Corporate Law, including governance and compliance
  • Contracts
  • Employment Law
  • Environmental
  • Healthcare
  • Immigration Law
  • Intellectual Property
  • Litigation
  • Privacy
  • Procurement
  • Real Estate
  • Technology

Being a specialist or having a strong knowledge base in any of these areas can help set you apart in your organization. Make sure to offer up your expertise as it is needed. For example, during our GC roundtable discussion, Rosemarie Thomas, Esq., Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Chief Human Resources Officer at Financeware, shared how she became the in-house contact person for immigration issues due to prior experience she had. In addition, she was able to offer finance expertise and take on technology contracts while increasing her knowledge in other areas of the business.

Paul Murphy, Esq. shared that his previous role as a law firm administrative partner equipped him with the necessary skill sets that helped secure his job as Legal and Administrative Counsel at Amherst College. The president of the college recognized his potential and valued his expertise in working with HR and other departments.

Grow Your Knowledge Base

Your existing strengths will benefit your organization immediately, but if you’re looking to advance your career, it’s also important to focus on growing your legal knowledge base and business skillsets.

During our General Counsel roundtable, Paul Murphy, Esq. emphasized the significance of being open to learning and not feeling intimidated by the idea of venturing into new territory. He explained that a significant portion of what is learned in this profession is centered around being a counselor and advisor, bringing sound judgment and a sense of calmness to problems.

Continuing Education

While it can be impossible to practice law full-time and keep track of all of the new laws relevant to your practice area, continuing education programs offer convenient and condensed ways to access this information quickly. Additionally, you benefit from having another attorney (the presenter) sift through these developments and determine which of them have teeth or should otherwise be on your radar.

Many CEs cover emerging legal topics, trends, and recent or upcoming state or U.S. Supreme Court cases. Attending in-person events can present networking opportunities, the importance of which was covered in Part Two of this series.

Many organizations, including local bar associations, offer workshops and conferences with intensive practice-specific sessions sometimes referred to as “boot camp.” These offer concentrated experiences over one to several days with veteran practitioners and real-world hypotheticals serving as examples to learn from. 

Learning Opportunities Within Your Organization

Nancy Peterson, Esq., Executive Vice President and General Counsel North America for Allied Universal, also had much to say at the roundtable about pushing out of your comfort zone and learning new skills.  She said, “[A]s you start to build those skills and understand how to frame different legal issues even in areas that maybe are not your home base, you’re going to get a lot more interesting work.” 

As discussed in Part One of this series, by going the extra mile and trying to learn the business, whether specifically the practice of law-related aspects or not, you are going to be a greater asset to the company. Learning more about your company internally will help to provide a starting point in procuring additional training or knowledge of that practice area.

Ask For Help

When all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This not only shows humility to your colleagues but reflects the reality that attorneys cannot know the entire legal universe. More senior members of your legal department are drawing from years of experience within your organization. Consider pursuing a mentorship relationship so that you have a designated contact for novel scenarios, or even to serve as a sounding board. Marianne Schimelfenig, Esq., former higher education general counsel, had this to say about having a “comfort level with ignorance”:

“If you’re going to be a General Counsel and you’ve been a specialist in some other area, particularly a trial lawyer, you really have to, in my opinion, have a comfort level with some level of legal ‘ignorance’ and the necessity of learning new areas of practice. It’s like snorkeling, you don’t do deep dives all the time. You take a look at what’s down there. Some of the fish you’ll know better than others. Others you need help and the “equipment” to go down and get. ”

One of the benefits of being a part of a legal department is that you have access to individuals with their own legal backgrounds and experiences. Asking for help can provide opportunities to get to know more about the individuals you work with and the knowledge bank of your department. If your organization does not have a legal department, there may be other individuals within your company who can lend a hand.

As Nancy Peterson shared, “Do not let a new legal subject matter intimidate you or prevent you from moving to the next level. Have confidence you’ll learn it”. 

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

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