The role of the general counsel has changed significantly in recent years. No longer just a corporate watchdog, today’s general counsel is heavily involved in matters spanning well beyond legal. They are expected to take a seat at the table alongside other C-suite executives as strategic business partners—not just mitigators of legal risk. The modern general counsel is a key player in business, financial and risk management decision-making, adept at aligning the goals and functions of the legal department squarely with company objectives.
While the role of the general counsel has long been evolving, the pandemic pushed these changes front and center. COVID-19 catapulted general counsels to the forefront, as they were called on to provide a road map for a rapidly changing environment. Through this crash course in company operations and people management, GCs learned to adapt a take-charge approach and cultivate a troubleshooting network that would better prepare the company for the next crisis. In doing so, they showed that the legal department could be a value creator and business enabler, not just a cost center.
This agility in the face of changing job demands has proven to be an incredibly important attribute for acting and aspiring general counsels. It is not only vital to the organization’s success; it’s essential to the individual’s professional development and career progression. Whether first-timers or seasoned legal leaders, general counsel candidates must understand that a new baseline for the GC skill set is taking shape, one that is much broader and deeper than the role has traditionally required.
Some competencies lawyers should master if they are hoping to make the leap into a general counsel role include:
No. 1: Leadership skills
Modern general counsel must be able to work collaboratively—across departments and within their own team—to establish systems and processes that can be scaled as the department and organization grow. These systems should aim to ensure compliance, promote efficiency and accountability, and help team members achieve the organization’s commercial objectives.
As leaders, GCs are also expected to assemble, cultivate and retain high-performing teams. Key performance management skills include setting clear goals and expectations, allocating resources effectively, evaluating employee performance, providing meaningful feedback, and recognizing and rewarding top performers. General counsel should also understand how to support the professional development of their legal team through mentoring, coaching, training and succession planning.
No. 2: Communication and interpersonal skills
Today’s general counsel need to have high level of emotional intelligence, which includes skills and attributes like self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and an ability to “read the room.” Strong interpersonal skills will help them build credibility and trust with fellow executives, the board, and other business units. Creating the perception of a partnership is important. This means fostering a customer service culture in the legal department, with the collective goal of delivering value for management and other internal clients.
Good communication skills are imperative as well. Expressing information and requests clearly and concisely saves time and minimizes misunderstandings—both within the department and across the organization. General counsel should be able to keep their communications brief, tailor messages to different audiences, and simplify complex legalese into plain, everyday language. And, in an age where information travels at the speed of light, they must master the proper timing of communication as well—a major practical challenge all leaders face.
No. 3: Operational business and financial acumen
General counsel today are expected to be strong business strategists, balancing organizational risk with revenue opportunities while optimizing the dollar value of legal spend. Candidates need to have sound financial acumen and be well-versed in the intricacies of how companies operate. They must understand the broader economic environment, the different legal and regulatory considerations that surround a business, and the financial and operational implications of legal decisions.
This level of comprehension requires having a firm grasp on key business concepts like accounting, marketing, business development, and ethics as well as financial areas like budgeting and forecasting. Earning a mini-MBA can help GC candidates enhance their business acumen and sharpen their management skills.
No. 4: Maximize your chances by being prepared
Rising to the rank of general counsel is a challenging endeavor. But few other titles give lawyers the opportunity to have such a profound influence on the performance and success of a business. There’s no such thing as being “too prepared” for the role. Candidates who focus on developing the non-legal skills required of modern general counsel will set themselves apart during the job search—and set themselves up for success when they’re hired.
The modern general counsel must recognize this new baseline for the GC skill set and ensure they are taking the steps to nurture their non-legal skills. This effort will not only benefit the GC’s company, but also the GC by creating an environment that is functioning at its best. When GC are called upon to make meaningful business decisions, which is only growing in frequency, they must have the necessary non-legal tools like leadership ability, interpersonal skills, and industry specific knowledge to succeed.
Very well said, Mr. Edem. You have captured the essence of what it takes to contribute to the GC role as a welcomed and productive member of corporate management. Just being a clever and seasoned attorney is never enough. As a retired GC having enjoyed some success in a major company, I particularly appreciate your publication’s mention of this unique and honorable legal role. It can be quite a satisfying career position for the right lawyer. A solid, successful company invariably has a great GC serving as an integral part of its executive management team. Thank you for sharing your insights on the role of General Counsel.