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Your First General Counsel Post: Advice From Those Who Have Successfully Navigated the Transition

You have accepted your first general counsel position, so you are now asking, “What’s next?” Becoming the head of a legal team is very exciting, but can also be a daunting task no matter how experienced or seasoned you are. There are many nuances to a particular organization and team that require adeptly navigating your first few days, weeks and months in your new role. After several conversations with seasoned general counsels across the country who lead legal teams ranging from one-person to multiple lawyers and professionals at large, global public companies, here are some of the most frequently noted takeaways from those conversations.

Where do I start?

Build relationships and listen. Your number one priority as a new general counsel should be developing relationships with everyone—at all levels, in all departments. Start out by meeting with your critical business partners and the senior leadership team. Then, take the time to get to know the members of the legal department, their responsibilities and personalities, as well as leaders in other key business functions. Listen to gain an understanding of their perspectives and pain points. This will go a long way to gaining credibility in your new organization.

Also, seek to understand the company’s history and strategic direction. Forming meaningful relationships with the CEO and other executives will ensure that the legal function is included in the company’s strategic plans. Keep lines of communication open—that includes your door. Don’t be afraid to step outside your office and engage. Building relationships is crucial to success. By continually being visible and listening, you can better address challenges and gain the trust of your team and peers. Demonstrating you are approachable, particularly as the company’s top lawyer, is key.

What information do I need?

Take time to assess and gather data. In the process of building relationships, make sure you are gathering solid data to make informed recommendations when the time comes. Don’t rush into making a change just for the sake of it. Here are some proactive measures you can take:

  • Create client satisfaction surveys to distribute to everyone who interacts with legal, not just the senior executive team. If you’re not sure who the legal end users are, ask your team.
  • Systematically probe your team through one-on-one meetings to understand their day-to-day responsibilities, as well as the unique skill sets your lawyers bring. As general counsel, you’ll be looked to maximize your talent to the highest potential. Aligning your team members’ responsibilities with their expertise and development goals is an easy way to increase employee engagement and retention. Ensure you do not limit your one-on-one meetings to just the lawyers. It is important to obtain perspectives from every member of the Legal organization, including all of the support staff.
  • Understand your company’s long-term strategic goals and how that aligns with your existing team and expertise.
  • Identify the resources at your disposal, including evaluating your budget and headcount and systems (i.e. matter management systems, research tools, etc.).

When do I begin?

Timing is everything. You’ll need to find the right balance between being patient and observant and demonstrating your ability to take swift, effective action. Consider your first year in three-month increments. Generally speaking, the first three months should be devoted to observing, gathering data and ingratiating yourself culturally; in the next three you should begin to take action. By month six, you will not be “new” anymore, so the second half of the year should be spent moving forward with your long-term plans. One size does not fit all, and you should resist the urge to make immediate changes just to put your mark on the department. However, on day one be ready to set expectations and the tone for the department. You should come in confident in your ability and character and ready to learn.

Who do I need and how do I hire?

Craft your team. If it becomes apparent that you need to add talent, assess the company’s current and recent deals, litigation, investigations and general business trends, and determine the most appropriate skill sets for managing them. Look at the direction the company is going and hire for the future, not just to triage what you are handling today.

You may need to consider growing your team in creative ways. A good way to justify permanent headcount is by hiring a temporary contractor or two, whose effective triaging will demonstrate quick value for the business, thus justifying additional headcount.

Diversity is critical to ensure the success of a legal department and the success of the organization as a whole. Interview a diverse range of candidates for every role—from ethnic and gender diversity to those who will add diversity of thought and challenge the status quo. Don’t miss the opportunity to add diversity to your legal department.

What about the law firms?

While it’s most efficient and cost-effective to do the majority of your work in-house, specialized knowledge, expertise, or even just extra hands for a large deal or litigation may require hiring outside counsel. Chances are your organization is already working with a law firm or two … or 20. The first year as general counsel gives you a unique opportunity to assess your organization’s relationships with outside counsel. This is a great time to issue RFPs, ask for alternative billing arrangements and streamline the number of firms your organization utilizes. Don’t be afraid to ask what fee structures exist and explore fee structures that make the most sense for your organization. A firm using alternative fee agreements is often showing innovation and a forward-thinking mentality.

Your relationship with your outside counsel should be built on trust, so make sure you choose a firm that aligns with your way of thinking and approach to business. Your understanding of your organization and how it operates will be imperative in determining if the firm you are working with is the right fit for your organization. Dig deep into the firm culture, management styles, diversity and business acumen among those working on your matters.

Who can I turn to for support?

A small group of mentors, advocates and sponsors. Being a general counsel can be a lonely job. You’re responsible for many moving parts within your organization. It’s important to maintain a network of trusted advisors outside your organization who you can seek out for advice. In particular, keep a short list of people in a similar industry who can give you guidance. Your network is vital throughout your career and now is no exception.

How you set the tone from day one as a new general counsel will guide the days, months and years that follow. Get to know your organization and the people within it. Once you have a solid foundation, go with your gut and trust your judgment. One size does not fit all, and you’ll be well-prepared to lead the legal function when you get off on the right foot. Don’t forget: as a general counsel, you’ve been hired because of your ability to exercise good judgment. Our hope is these tips will guide you on the path forward.

 

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