In a competitive global business climate, corporations face a slew of evolving legal challenges and unprecedented levels of risk. Companies are shifting more responsibilities to general counsel—compliance, ESG, enterprise risk management, human resources, legal operations, corporate communications, and government affairs.
The legal watchdog role of yesterday has evaporated, and today’s corporate counsel has elevated to a strategic, C-suite business partner.
As change unfolds, companies are thinking differently about the type of background they need in their general counsel. They are beginning to shift candidate profiles to foundationally trained litigators almost as often as foundationally trained corporate lawyers.
Legal leaders who began their careers as litigators say the following qualities contributed to their success in the general counsel role.
Intellectual Curiosity. This vital competency is often overlooked. Skilled litigators aren’t afraid to ask tough questions and get to the “why?” behind a matter. They want to constantly learn through hands-on experience and from people around them. “Litigators tend to excel at quickly processing new information, new industries, and new science to understand complex topics,” said Jeff Melucci at Kimberly-Clark.
“They have the intellectual curiosity to get a mile deep as new issues arise. These are valuable attributes in a business climate that’s fast, volatile, and disruptive.”
Composure Under Pressure. When a crisis hits or conflict arises—and decision-making time frames are short—general counsel must remain level-headed while providing thoughtful and confident leadership to their team and fellow executives.
Melucci explains, “General counsel with litigation experience can avoid the impulse to ‘fight’ in stressful situations—or at least know when a fight is worthwhile. When things come up that have no playbook, they’re good at getting back to a semblance of normalcy due to their problem-solving skills, good judgment, and ability to stay calm when stakes are high.”
Cari Robinson, formerly of Revlon, added, “While it is important to understand the broader landscape and dive deeply into pertinent facts and avenues—general counsels must be mindful not to go so deep that they get lost in weeds. Litigators are known to be able to prioritize tasks and quickly identify and focus on key points and strategies, and this is required for crisis management.” These skills also translate to success in the general counsel role.
Strong Intuition. Litigators build solid, proactive skills in risk mitigation and avoidance, as well as business savvy. They adeptly identify potential pitfalls that may adversely affect the organization, while also understanding that all business decisions involve some calculated and acceptable risk. Former litigators may anticipate how things may play out in the real world, leading to a fast, accurate understanding of a situation that’s developing at lightning speed.
“The company and board want to know the issues and risks,” said C.E. Rhodes of Frost Bank. “Litigators have a keen sense of listening, spotting issues that matter, and bringing those to the board’s attention. They’re able to look at things holistically.”
Exceptional Communication Skills. A general counsel is tasked daily with conveying legal risks, solutions, and opportunities to other business leaders—and priorities, strategies, and objectives to their team. This aligns well with a litigator’s robust interpersonal and communication skills that enable them to quickly build trust and credibility with others.
“The best litigators are persuasive,” Rhodes said. “They’re strong leaders and good communicators. They know how to communicate concisely. They’re able to translate all the legalese and explain things in an easy-to-understand way.”
Collaborative Nature. Fostering a collaborative environment can help general counsel get the most out of their legal team, their business clients, board, and outside counsel. Meaningful cooperation with other departments and business leaders brings a 360-degree view of risks and opportunities, leading to better business decisions.
“There’s a perception that litigators are difficult to get along with and not collaborative,” Rhodes said. “But business litigators tend to be highly team-oriented and good at building consensus.”
Litigators suffer from a reputation for being argumentative and the person to turn to when a dispute occurs. While styles vary across the board, litigators are problem-solvers and get to settlement or dispute avoidance, and this takes collaboration and a desire to listen to the perspective of the other stakeholders.
Risk-Avoidant, Not Risk Adverse: As enterprise risk rises in a tumultuous and ever-changing regulatory environment, so does the importance of the ability of the general counsel to analyze and minimize risk. Privacy, cybersecurity, the global regulatory environment, and industry-specific regulatory matters consistently rank as top concerns keeping general counsel up all night.
It’s rare to find a compliance and risk officer without a litigation background. Litigators see the big picture and understand how their clients operate. They must see how the whole case plays out, anticipate twists and turns, and craft the most persuasive strategy and approach to win. The same is true in creating compliance policies and risk avoidance, and gaining stakeholder buy-in.
What should companies look for in candidates with a litigation background?
A litigator with operational and P&L management experience is well-positioned to conduct problem-solving at the highest level, Melucci said. “Complementing this expertise should be solid business acumen, a desire to look at lessons learned, and the drive to turn those lessons into recommendations for improvements to the business going forward.”
Should corporations hire litigators directly from a law firm?
Not always. Usually, the hire is made because the litigator served as outside counsel to the company, and already understood the company and its business. Industry expertise in a highly regulated industry is also a unique justification for immediate value-add by a litigator coming from a law firm, but the legal department must have strong operational and corporate talent for the general counsel to be successful.
Instead, companies should focus on a foundationally trained litigator who has experience in senior-level roles in an organization such as chief compliance officer, business unit general counsel, or corporate secretary.
These paths will teach the foundationally trained litigator what’s essential to the business and how to respond effectively to a crisis. The experience they gain can help them unlock their potential as high-impact business change agents while shielding the wider organization from risk.
The modern general counsel role has eliminated the “department-of-no” mentality and is now seen as a true business partner contributing to the growth of the organization. With that, the foundational training and skills of litigators are now becoming desirable when paired with the proper operational and/or organizational experience.