Why a General Counsel Must Serve as a Business Partner


For many lawyers, obtaining the role of general counsel can be a lifetime career accomplishment. 

These individuals have likely thought of achieving this position over the course of their career as they practiced in-house and moved up the corporate ladder.

Many of these lawyers may think of the GC role as a continuation of their standard responsibilities as a lawyer, for instance, to give excellent counsel, provide smart legal opinions and weigh in on legal matters that significantly impact their organization. 

That is all true, but many experienced GCs will say that what they did not foresee is that their primary function as GC is not just to be an excellent lawyer but to also be a contributing member of the corporate executive team. That is, the GC must sit in and play a key role during meetings the CEO conducts along with his or her other C-suite executives—namely the CFO, CHRO, COO and CIO.

Customarily, it is amidst these meetings that the most noteworthy conversations and resolutions are made about an organization’s future. New corporate initiatives are debated and approved or rejected. 

The CEO looks to their leadership team for informed opinions about major decisions that need to be made. The executive team undeniably sets the tone for the culture and tenor of an organization.

Of course, a GC needs to be a lawyer with great substantive understanding of the law, judgment, knowledge and instincts. She or he also needs to understand how to hire and manage terrific team members and run a well-oiled department.

A CEO would likely argue that these attributes are “table stakes”: it should be assumed that any GC worth considering for the role already has these qualities in spades. 

But how the GC performs when the proverbial door closes and the executive team has to engage in candid and sometimes fraught conversations about critical issues is pivotal.

That is why a GC who understands how to be a business partner as well as a lawyer and succeeds at being a key member of the executive team is likely to have a lengthy and positive tenure within an organization. 

A GC who is not a high-performing member of this team is almost certainly not going to work out, no matter how wonderful their skills are as a great lawyer.

But what does it mean to be a business partner to the CEO? That will, of course, depend on the company, the CEO and any issues that the current executive team are facing. 

However, understanding risk — and assessing each company’s appetite for it — is a key contribution for any GC looking to serve as a business partner.


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