Interim executive consultants have long played an important part in helping organizations navigate change, improve the status quo and create leadership stability. In recent years, legal departments have embraced the use of interim legal and compliance professionals for project-based and time-sensitive roles. In the past five years, a new model has matured and emerged: the Interim General Counsel.
The interim General Counsel model is viable in a host of scenarios: the first legal hire in an emerging life sciences organization, the sole legal professional for a venture-backed organization, coverage of a medical leave, the incumbent providing insufficient notice prior to taking a new role and, more frequently, in the current candidate-centric market, coverage of a role as the client seeks a general counsel for a larger organization. As most in-house legal departments are lean, even a brief gap in GC coverage can serve a heavy blow to the rest of the team in terms of morale and productivity.
The most compelling aspect of the interim GC model is its cost-effectiveness when compared to a full-time hire or expensive outside counsel. When you consider all the costs associated with a permanent employee—not just salary but also bonuses, benefits and recruitment fees—an interim GC is a minimal investment with a high return. In addition, reliance on outside counsel may be severely minimized
Here are some other reasons to consider an interim GC:
Broader candidate pool: Since the position is temporary in nature, using an interim general counsel can open up a wider pool of talent beyond your local market. More attorneys will be willing to work remotely with occasional travel or relocate for a short time if the opportunity is right.
Faster ramp-up: Interim talent is often available to interview for a position at a moment’s notice. Without the usual formalities and red tape, they can typically hit the ground running faster than a permanent hire and start within a matter of days. This is in stark contrast to the weeks—or even months—it could take to search for and hire a new, full-time GC.
Diverse, cutting-edge expertise: Since they continually move from one organization to the next, career interim attorneys have the unique advantage of staying at the forefront of the industry. They are continually being exposed to the latest technology advancements and best practices, and as a result, they are less likely to become stagnant.
Qualifications: Taking on the role of temporary GC requires a certain type of attorney, someone who is self-driven and thrives under pressure. Interim candidates tend to be highly qualified attorneys who have followed the traditional BigLaw career path, worked in-house and are now seeking to diversify and augment their experience. They are looking for contract opportunities that will give them flexibility, exposure and the chance to help others succeed. If you’re fortunate enough to get a seasoned and well-rounded senior attorney to fill your interim GC role, your business will reap the benefits long after their stint has ended.
Objectivity: A good interim GC has solid interpersonal skills and excels in a team-based environment. At the same time, as external and temporary talent, they are able to maintain a certain level of impartiality. This objectivity allows them to speak the necessary truth—even when it is unpopular—without fear of political repercussions.
Another bright spot in using an interim GC is that it is a learning experience for your company and an opportunity for improvement. Use this time to re-evaluate and redefine the general counsel role. Are there new responsibilities to consider? Must-have skillsets or experience areas? Use these insights to create a template for your upcoming permanent GC hire. Would you consider hiring the interim GC as a permanent employee?
Profile of an Ideal Interim GC Candidate
Generally speaking, ideal candidates for interim GC are top-of-the-list applicants for traditional GC roles. There are two candidate types you will likely encounter. One is startup GCs accustomed to functioning solo, with broad experience in everything from drafting contracts and running board meetings to ordering chairs. The other type is GCs from large corporations who have more focused business strategy experience.
Ideally, you will want an attorney who brings all of these qualities to the table; someone willing to take on the many moving pieces of the GC position. Good candidates will have large-firm training as well as the business acumen that comes with in-house experience. They should know how to work with individual business units and understand the big picture of how everything functions as a whole. Life experience is important; attorneys should be able to advise on critical business matters and perform practical business tasks. A strong executive presence is key as well. Diversity of experience and perspective should be considered.
What about appointing an interim GC from within the legal department? Internal interims are also responsible for their primary job, which can be overwhelming when coupled with GC duties. In addition, fear of internal political repercussions may influence an interim GC’s ability to make sound, objective decisions. This is why looking externally for a short-term GC—who can dedicate themselves fully to the role—tends to bring better results.
In the current legal market—particularly as hiring gains steam post-pandemic—competition for top talent is high. If you need to fill an immediate gap in your legal department, hiring a well-qualified interim GC for six months or a year may make sense. It will allow you to secure a mission-critical resource at a fraction of the cost and time it takes to hire a full-time counsel. It also buys you time to execute a strategic and thoughtful search for the right permanent hire.
Although, in the end, you may not need to conduct that search after all. It is quite possible that your interim GC ends up being the star candidate you were looking for all along.