Getting to the General Counsel Chair
Whether you move from a law firm directly into the position or climb the ladder as an in-house attorney, the path to becoming general counsel can be difficult to parse out. Here are some tips on the legal skills and practices that can help you get there.
Learn to How to Communicate with Multiple Departments.
In a general counsel role, you’ll often act as an intermediary between a company’s legal- and non-legal departments. These departments will each use different terminology and acronyms and will each have different areas of specialized expertise. Understanding the nomenclature and having the ability to switch between different sets of vocabulary will enable you to better communicate with different arms of a company and provide service at a variety of levels.
Start Saying “Yes.”
The last thing that you want to be known for is saying “no, we can’t do that.” In other words, when people come to you with an issue, provide them with a legal solution, not a legal obstacle. When the leaders of a company start seeing the legal department as an obstacle to getting things done they will likely look to by-pass the legal department or keep it out of the decision process which is bad because if you want to get noticed, you need to have a seat at the table. This requires you to take a deeper dive to find out what the business objectives are and whether what is proposed works or not. If not, come back to the table with a solution in mind. Businesses are sure to remember lawyers who solve problems over those that simply point them out.
Learn the Business.
You will not be able to provide effective and strategic legal analysis unless you start to understand your company’s business and its goals. You need to know your company’s products and services, who the customers are, who the competitors are, and what challenges the company is facing. This means taking the time to understand the company’s strategic plans and research the trends that can impact the business. It takes time to develop the legal skills to pursue a career as general counsel. If you know what field you want to be in, go ahead and subscribe to several industry publications and relevant blogs so you can start to get a broader understanding of the business issues you might have to face in the future.
Always Work towards Growing your Legal Skills and Credentials.
Always look for ways to enhance your legal skills and credentials in a variety of practice areas. Seek out areas of the law that you are truly interested in enhancing, or which are particularly important to the industry you want to be in. You can also join and participate in legal organizations, such as an ABA committee or ACC chapter. You can even start researching and writing articles for your state bar association magazine. You will be expected to possess a deep knowledge of a broad range of legal topics. You can utilize these tactics to gain experience throughout your career in key areas like compliance, labor law, executive compensation and corporate governance. That way, when you are facing a variety of issues as general counsel, you will have the legal acumen to address or delegate them.
Develop Non-Legal Skills and Credentials. The officers and board members of successful companies want a general counsel who brings more to the table than good legal skills. They want a lawyer with sound judgment, including ethics and integrity since general counsel will often be involved in making decisions with less than complete information in grey areas of right and wrong. Further, you need to be able to leverage you legal skills to strategically advance business interests and think about the big picture. Finally, a general counsel is the ultimate team player lawyer. You need to be someone who can lead a team but it is also important that the business’ leaders feel like you can easily partner with others to accomplish a variety of tasks.