Attorneys make it to the general counsel role not only because of their legal savvy. Even before they get there, lawyers poised to take on a GC position realize that understanding the law is not enough. As a part of the leadership team, today's GC must help create competitive advantages for their business and position the company for long-term success. While a sound legal mind is required, so too are a variety of additional skills.
Shifting a GC's frame of mind from just focusing on legal to taking into account the whole business is not easy, but here are three important things to remember.
The scope of work handled by today's GC continues to grow, covering not just traditional legal work but also encompassing cybersecurity, intellectual property, data privacy, risk management and other complex issues in ever-changing regulatory worlds. As a partner to the C-suite and adviser to the board, the GC must respond quickly and navigate always-shifting priorities, all while guiding business leaders with the best legal advice on issues they may or may not be aware are coming down the pike. The GC's work should center on doing what is best for the sake of the business, even if that means veering from executive leadership's priorities. Properly communicating the need for such a change in strategy or approach is often left to the GC.
Flexibility is important, but how a GC frames his actions and decisions is even more critical to ensuring that the leadership understands why a particular course of action is necessary. Communication seems like an obvious skill for GCs that have spent much of their education and careers writing and speaking. However, legal writing can be lengthy and full of jargon, and for many GCs, learning to be succinct can pose a challenge. Many lawyers will hide behind a memo rather than walk down the hall to discuss an issue. Even in person, they may fail to simplify the situation so that it resonates with the business' clients. The GC is a translator, offering the best legal advice and delivering it strategically. Rather than framing discussions around legal matters as "the law says," GCs must listen actively, understand nuance, create compromises and, above all, persuade colleagues in order to be effective and taken seriously. If GCs fail to adapt their communication style to terms that colleagues will understand, they risk not being heard, or worse, excluded from key conversations and decisions.
Contrary to the law firm mindset of increasing billable hours and generating more revenue, GCs must orient their thinking around cutting costs. The law department is a cost center, and it's up to the GC to consistently demonstrate how the legal team's work provides value.
Continuously organizing and assessing whether work is appropriately delegated to in-house lawyers, paralegals and outside counsel can be tedious, but it is necessary to keep costs low. In addition to managing teams, GCs can leverage artificial intelligence and alternative legal services to automate and streamline routine functions such as document and contract review, helping to keep costs down and efficiencies up. Ultimately, properly delegating work will not just provide the business with the best value, but it will also leave GCs with ample time to perform the role of high-level strategic adviser that the C-suite expects.
GCs should not be afraid to spend to save—there are countless contract management solutions, for example, that can not only save time but can also save the company money in the long run. Some of these solutions include software that helps track and provides status updates on expiration and renewal of leases or licensing agreements. Such a program can pay for itself by protecting the company from potentially costly oversights, such as the auto-renewal of a bad lease or the expiration of a licensing agreement.
Another area where it makes sense to spend is hiring additional internal help, whether it is attorneys, paralegals or other top-notch support. Conducting a simple make/buy analysis can point to areas where keeping the work "inside" saves money over using outside resources. However, the worst time to invest in these is after crisis strikes, when desperate measures will increase costs—while a lower cost, proactive approach might have prevented the crisis altogether.
The GC's primary focus is to manage risk practically in order to gain an edge for the business. Identifying risk is second nature for lawyers, but there is a distinct difference in distinguishing between theoretical risk and actual risk. Risks that could impact the business are not nearly as pressing as risks that will, and a smart GC with a business focus can hone in on that difference while calculating the financial impact of his decisions.
Remember that a GC's work is not all about the pitfalls; they must maintain a balance of positive and negative risks and the benefits they pose. In business, smart risks can provide great opportunity for growth, and an astute GC will weigh the opportunities that are worth pursuing.
All too often, attorneys react to the legal needs of their companies rather than pursuing more strategic, proactive efforts that raise the profile of the GC and the legal department. However, with the right mind shift and a concrete understanding that their role is about much more than the law, the GC can be a very effective and trusted partner to the C-suite and the board. Again, listening and communication are the components of building trusted relationships within the organization to learn the company's risk tolerance.
In sum, a strong GC needs the listening and communication skills that will not only enable them to develop relationships and learn the company's risk tolerance, but also allow them to impact a change in policy or strategy. Though legal is a cost center, the GC has an obligation to manage resources properly, and mitigating risk or taking on proactive projects that will further the company's interests may require an investment in tools or people. A true legal leader is not simply reactive, but rather an active and forward-thinking partner to the business.
* * * * * *
This article was featured on Corporate Counsel, August 3, 2017. This is the second article in a two-part series.
* * * * * *
PJ 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.