Success Factors For An Effective General Counsel: Advice From The C-Suite


Based on our experience and interaction with senior executive teams in assessing the success factors for General Counsel, as well as input from the esteemed panelists at our recent event on what the C-suite looks for when hiring a GC, we have compiled the following list of tips and suggestions for effective general counsel. These include:

Competencies/Characteristics Desired in a GC

  • Character/Integrity—Can they solve problems? Can I trust them and can they handle a crisis and bring me solutions? Integrity is bedrock.
  • Change Agent—Are they innovative? Can they change and improve what we have and not simply maintain it?
  • Courage—Are they tough? Can they stand up to the boss and push back gracefully?
  • Great Partner —Can they help build a great organization, work with others, listen carefully and check their egos?
  • Leadership—Do they understand their role in the organization? Do they develop their new hires? Are they a servant-leader? Do they manage strong and high-performing teams?
  • Business Acumen—Do they understand general business issues, not just legal? Do they view their work through a “business” lens?  Do they think like a business person?
  • Gravitas—Do they reflect seriousness and intelligence, and will they command the respect of others, including senior executives and board members?  Do they have gravitas and presence?
  • Strategic Thinker—Do they have a cross-functional point of view and bring a strategic perspective to problem solving?
  • Navigator—Can they help navigate working with the board and executive committee as well as with their direct reports?
  • Collaborator—Can they collaborate within the entire executive team? Would they partner well with other key executives to help guide the CEO?  Will they share information and align as a trusting partner, yet maintain confidential information when needed?

How to Identify These Competencies/Characteristics

  • Learn about life experiences and problem-solving skills.
  • Ask for off-the-sheet testimonials.
    • Speak to people who report to them.
    • Speak to their mentors.
    • Speak to their last few bosses.
  • Learn how they have help team members develop.
  • Learn whether they have ever developed other general counsel.
  • Learn how they manage people and manage a budget.
  • Learn whether they are a quick study—particularly in a new industry.
  • Ask behavioral questions. Ask for examples of the above (e.g., "Can you tell me about a time that you …")

Cultural Fit

  • EQ and adaptability are important.
  • Flexibility to cultural changes is critical. It may be better if the GC can adapt to a corporate culture, rather than being an exact clone. Are they a good listener? Are they perceptive of culture? Cultural adaptability is critical because culture can change with a CEO transition.
  • Learn about their behaviors and management styles and how they have worked/adapted in past cultures.
  • Seek varied opinions about a GC or a potential GC. For example, speak to the receptionist and administrators about their views.

Collaboration with Executive Team and Board of Directors

  • Ongoing talent review and succession planning is important.
  • GC should work closely with and guide the Board, sharing responsibility with the rest of the executive team to protect the company and the Board.
  • GC should report to the CEO. By not reporting to the CEO, the GC may be too distant from the Board to be effective.
  • GC needs to have a strong relationship with all the members of the executive team, not just the CEO.
  • GC and CHRO should align themselves as partners.

Diversity Recruiting

  • It is critical to have diverse talent and viewpoints in an organization.
  • Having a diverse workforce and being known as an employer that welcomes diversity and inclusion is helpful for recruitment and growing an organization, as well as for successfully executing business mission in a diverse world.
  • Don't just espouse diversity and inclusion; do it.
  • Make sure a diverse team does the interviewing and evaluations. Interview and evaluation teams should reflect diversity to obtain diversity of opinion and perspectives on the GC.

Addressing Cultural Bias

  • If you write a job description or evaluation form that reflects your ideal GC, you may be restricting yourself from finding, hiring, and retaining some of the best GCs.
  • Educate people about unconscious and conscious bias.


  • Cultural fit and integrity are the two most important qualities for an effective general counsel.
  • To maximize the likelihood for a successful general counsel, there should be a clear understanding of the values and priorities for the organization and the GC, as well as input from diverse perspectives and stakeholders.

With gratitude to the participants in a recent Major, Lindsey & Africa program for their valuable insight and contributions to the panel discussion.

  • Introductions: Nancy Reiner, Managing Director, Major, Lindsey & Africa (In-House Practice Group)
  • Moderator: David Friedman, SVP, Legal and Government Affairs for Boston Red Sox & Senior Counsel, Fenway Sports Group
  • Panelist: Brackett Denniston, Senior Counsel, Goodwin, Former Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary, General Electric
  • Panelist: Ginger Gregory, Appointed Executive Vice-President, Chief Human Resources Officer, Biogen effective July 17, 2017, Former Chief Human Resources Officer, Shire
  • Panelist: Jim Roosevelt, Counsel, Verrill Dana, Former CEO, President and General Counsel, Tufts Health Plan 


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