Making the Most of the Role: Advice for New General Counsel

Advice for new attorneysThe role of the general counsel has changed dramatically. No longer relegated to simply running the legal department, today's GCs often find themselves with a seat at the executive table, increasingly responsible for enhancing the business and helping to develop financial and risk management strategies for the long-term. As a result of these increased responsibilities, GCs are in a unique position to make a real contribution to the direction of the company. For GCs new to the role, such demands are exciting, but they are also likely to seem daunting to a relatively green GC. Here are four important pieces of advice that will not only help prospective GCs prepare for the role before they ever reach the C-suite, but, will also help those already in place excel in the dual role of legal adviser and business manager.

Understand the Business

Broad legal expertise is the foundation that allows a GC to step into the position; however, once in the role, the most crucial step a GC can take is to know the business inside and out. Because GCs interface with so many different departments, they sit at the center of the entire operation. Having a firm understanding of how each piece of the company functions is critical to making the most informed decisions and giving the best legal advice for the whole organization.

New GCs should take the time to meet key members of each department and learn how they function. They should step out into the field to meet representatives at every level, learn about the competition, attend conferences, and read deeply in order to understand the future direction of the industry. The insights gained will ensure that the legal advice supports the business and its objectives for the long term and allow for greater strategic input and participation. True understanding creates the opportunity for proactive planning rather than simply reactive resolution.

Expand Legal Skills

The GC position provides an opportunity to expand legal skills beyond the work often handled in private practice, and even in lower level in-house positions, which often lend themselves to subject matter expertise. This skill broadening should begin, if possible, prior to becoming a GC. A prospective GC can also gain cross-functional experience outside of work if his or her role is tightly defined. Developing a diverse background is key, as a good GC will have touched on as many areas as possible prior to reaching the helm, with a particular focus on transactions, litigation management, labor and employment, intellectual property, compliance, privacy, governance and finance. International experience can also prove useful.

Even if one has not had the opportunity to develop some of these skills beforehand, the GC role allows attorneys to sharpen their expertise in a number of areas. A new GC that specialized in transactional work in a previous position may use the platform as a means to gain exposure to litigation or vice versa. A strong GC will not merely delegate to the subject matter experts in the department, or to outside counsel, but he or she will seek to understand the issues. Developing expertise in new areas of law will better position GCs to have a full handle on all legal matters that a company comes across and give the best guidance to the C-suite and board. Over time, effective GCs not only improve the integrity of their business' operations, but enhance the business overall by having an understanding of all the major areas of law.

Develop Soft Skills

While there are regulations to follow and compliance measures to meet, most of the GC's work falls between these cracks, requiring them to spot problem areas before they bubble and troubleshoot effectively. Handling some of the more delicate issues, or navigating between competing interests within a corporation, is where emotional intelligence, or "soft skills" come into play. Reading a situation astutely will not only help GCs make the best decisions, it will set an example for the entire legal team to do the same. Listening skills are paramount. In some cases, communication and leadership are as important, if not more important, than practical legal skills.

Developing these skills can take place outside of work (e.g., as a member of a nonprofit board, or leading a committee in the community), by attending seminars, through reading or even with the assistance of an executive coach. It's also helpful for young lawyers and new GCs to seek opportunities and volunteer for projects outside of their comfort zone. Since all roads eventually tie back into legal, these experiences give a GC the chance to become a trusted ally and leader in a wide range of areas. They will make for a more interesting career and the resultant expanded perspective from them provide a new GC useful skills to apply to their work and beyond.

Be an Employee First

Part of knowing the business better means becoming more than the company's counsel; GCs are employees first. Establishing an image as an employee and not "just the lawyer" comes down to building relationships with employees, stakeholders and clients—which builds credibility in the role. GCs should make a concerted effort to know as many people as possible across departments. The more employees see the GC as a colleague, the more respect they will have for the GC and their counsel, and the easier it will be for the GC to navigate internal relations.

Within the legal department, mentoring more junior members of the team (and encouraging other senior attorneys to do the same) can be a means of fostering strong camaraderie. Through mentorships, GCs can demonstrate that they are fully invested in employees' well-being and committed to building personal relationships. Taking the time to help with the professional development of a colleague can be an investment in the whole team's future.

Success as a GC means fully integrating into the company by better knowing its culture, people and business, a contrast from the law firm's narrow focus of serving clients. With this in mind, success as a GC depends on taking the time to appropriately assimilate into the company, while continuing the legal work in a different manner. A strong GC will be forced to step out of his or her comfort zone often, as there are many instances where new areas of law will be applied, or business and management challenges will arise. By pushing professional boundaries, GCs can set a tone for the rest of the team to follow, challenging them for the better.

In sum, GCs serve the needs of their clients best when they can be proactive, which is the result of having developed strong practical legal experience, the emotional intelligence to communicate appropriately, trusted relationships at every level in the organization, and the ability to understand the business and the industry intimately. Taken and developed individually, each of these skills will help to create a well-rounded GC. They will also elevate one's performance as a leader in both the business and the legal space.

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This article was featured on Corporate Counsel, August 2, 2017. This is the first article in a two-part series.

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PJ HarariPJ Harari is a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa in Southern California and is co-global practice leader for the In-House Practice Group. Harari's practice focuses on conducting senior compliance and general counsel searches on behalf of corporate legal departments.

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