Adjusting to a general counsel role can be especially difficult because you won’t succeed by simply being an excellent lawyer, or having a thorough understanding of industry regulations, or knowing how to expertly mitigate and reduce risk. You have to excel at all of those things (and more), in combination with having a strong background in business strategy and an ability to manage others, all while successfully navigating organizational bureaucracy.
Having an idea of what to expect can help make for a smoother transition into the corporate counsel role. Here are some things to expect in your new position.
You’re looked to for help with business strategy and C-level executives rely on you
The general counsel role is evolving, and is now much more than just the company’s legal expert. You were hired to be a leader within your company and help strategically move the business forward, and C-level executives expect you to contribute to all stages of the business planning and growth process.
Sterling Miller, who has almost 25 years of experience as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, and Chief Compliance Officer, writes, “...as many in-house lawyers are learning, it is not enough to be an excellent lawyer with deep legal skills and institutional knowledge. That just gets you to the table. The business wants more out of its in-house legal department, especially from the general counsel and other senior members of the legal team.”
If you haven’t already, start thinking about the company’s goals and objectives from a strategic business angle in addition to the impacts they have on the legal team.
You must determine the acceptable level of risk to operate within while driving business growth
The goal for many legal professionals is to find ways to mitigate or eliminate risks as much as possible, without worrying about the impacts to revenue, growth, sales, etc. That’s not the case for the modern GC.
According to a publication from Heidrick and Struggles on the tough questions CEOs are asking, “Instead of simply controlling every risk at the expense of the organization’s mission, the business-savvy GC operates within a framework of acceptable risk, helping the CEO weigh the benefits and drawbacks of different courses of action and when obstacles arise, helping develop alternatives that advance business goals.”
Finding this acceptable level of risk can be a challenge that takes time to master, and greatly depends on the organization’s overall risk appetite, but part of your job is to help set that precedent. A good first step is to initiate a contract risk assessment to determine the health of your contract portfolio, which in turn can shed light on the overall level of risk within your organization.
Consider initiating a contract risk assessment by answering basic contract questions like:
Where are all of our contracts located?
Who owns each contract?
When does each contract expire?
What are the repercussions of any given contract expiring or auto-renewing without our knowledge?
As stated in ContractWorks’ Introductory Guide to Contract Risk Assessment, “When you enter into a contractual agreement, you not only establish the legality of your actions, you also define how all parties will behave, what obligations and responsibilities each participant will undertake, and what risks, costs, and benefits will occur upon completion or violation of the contract.”
Management responsibilities, team/talent development
The Heidrick and Struggles publication states, “...the GC must possess outstanding management skills, including the ability to develop talent, plan for succession, and direct a global team.”
Most GCs are heavily reliant upon their supporting cast, so it’s in your best interest to make team development a priority and provide ample opportunities for your staff to learn, grow, and thrive. Whether it’s paralegals, risk analysts, operations specialists, or other team members, the better they are at their jobs, the more effective you’ll be in your role.
Here are some ways you and your team can continue your professional development and expand your knowledge within the industry:
Attend trade shows and conferences to hear the latest news and developments and connect with others in your field
Make time for ongoing education by registering for online courses and relevant webinars
Read industry publications for insights and perspectives on the topics that are most meaningful to your business
For more things to consider in your new position, download Surviving and Conquering Your New Role as Corporate Counsel: Tips for a Successful Career Transition.