Law is just one aspect of the General Counsel (GC) role. Just as important for career success is the ability to be a commercial-minded business decision maker. Where it was once thought of as the easier alternative to private practice, the path to GC is now a multi-dimensional career offering true leadership opportunity at board level. To be a company’s GC is to take responsibility for business reputation and growth.
With these developments in the role of GC, why do private practice lawyers choose to move in-house? And importantly, once the early transition years are over, what does it take for GCs to truly make their mark in a business?
The transition in-house
There are numerous reasons why a private practice lawyer might consider moving in-house, many of them individual. But in our experience, most want a change from the culture of law firms.
The decision might come at various levels of seniority from moving in-house as a junior lawyer and then stepping up the ranks within a business, to moving as an established private practice partner, straight into a GC role. Corporate environments typically offer a more team-oriented approach encompassing different performance measures; for many, it’s a welcome change from the pressures of billable hours.
A GC role also offers the opportunity to work much more closely with a business and to work on more varied issues – regulatory affairs, audit and risk compliance, corporate security, corporate social responsibility, brand reputation and crisis management, to name a few. This is a real attraction for lawyers who are being asked to become ever-more specialised in private practice. Here is a chance to be the most senior lawyer who works as part of a diverse team encompassing many different skills, personalities and backgrounds.
These key drivers, however, can be the same reason why transitioning to a GC role can be challenging. The huge difference in culture can still surprise lawyers. Law firms are populated by lawyers who all speak the same language, reinforced by years of following the same training mechanisms. Lawyers are the front office, supported by marketing/BD, HR, finance, and so on.
Move in-house and the culture shifts to one in which the lawyers are a support division too, working alongside every other function, all of which are different, in companies that vary hugely, from FCMG to logistics to telecoms. The shift requires considerable adjustment in the first few months; even getting used to corporate meetings can be strange coming from the time pressures of the billable hour.
Having said this, in our experience lawyers rarely make this move without considerable forethought, which is why so many of these moves work out well. Lawyers tend to research deeply and make use of good advice from in-house lawyers they already know and good recruiters in this space. Getting input on their level of transferable skills – communication, creativity, decision-making, interest in, and aptitude for, financial and management information – all help establish understanding of the journey ahead and set favourable foundations for lasting success.
It’s worth mentioning too that moving in-house is not the one-way street it was once thought to be. Some do move back to private practice over their careers – we had one candidate who recently moved back into private practice from a GC role at an investment bank, for example. Also, in the news recently was Chris Thornes, who has returned to private practice as a consultant for Norton Rose Fulbright from his role as GC at HSBC, having started his career at Allen & Overy*. However, in practice, we find that those who are culturally suited to a corporate role rarely look back once settled in-house.
Consolidation in the role
There are many factors that determine success in the first year or two of becoming a GC: personal legal expertise; sound commercial judgement; excellence in communication; creativity in thinking; the ability to understand a wide breadth of issues pertinent to that business; and the courage to make decisions.
But there are certainly a few things that the new GC should establish quickly. The first is a network, both internally and externally. As the most senior lawyer in an organisation, GCs may feel isolated in those early days, so the ability to gain the confidence, and support, of other senior stakeholders across the business is often vital to gaining credibility and feeling secure enough to make those first important decisions at high levels.
Building an external network can also be vital, especially for those GCs who have a small in-house team of lawyers or none at all. The GC role can be lonely after coming from a law firm in which lots of lawyers provide a sense of moral support. Networking with other GCs across the industry, or even beyond the sector, can be hugely helpful, allowing GCs to share invaluable insights and experience. It can also be a useful way of tapping into wider market moves and opportunities, which may become useful later.
Especially important in these early days is the ability to step beyond any one area of legal expertise. This means it is vital for GCs to get their external law firms in place early to ensure good support is at hand. This is also one of the reasons private practice law firms are often pleased to see a lawyer going to a GC role: it often brings with it new potential for work!
Alongside the structural set up comes a pressing need to get to grips with the many issues at play in the organisation and wider sector, including technology advances, competitive threats, trading obstacles and opportunities, the company’s financial status (including understanding and reading balance sheets, and profit and loss statements), plus corporate governance and compliance.
Some lawyers, realising the importance of adapting to a business mindset will take a business qualification to support this shift, such as an MBA. Coaching and mentoring can also support the move from trusted legal adviser to team manager, business leader and company-wide decision maker.
Making a career of it
At Fox Rodney, we have worked with many in-house lawyers, including GCs further along in their careers, perhaps moving roles for the second or third time. While there are GCs who move across different sectors/industries – for example moving from telecoms to sports & media – lawyers typically stay within their sector, developing considerable expertise within that field, which then puts them in high demand elsewhere. Typical of this was our recent mandate for a GC for a pre-IPO in London. The client wanted someone who completely understood their market and in particular the risks to which they might be exposed.
Every GC role is different – but as careers progress, the remit typically broadens. A GC, for instance, might take on other responsibilities for areas like internal audit, risk management and/or corporate social responsibility. This not only means advocating for the business on a different level, it could mean managing teams that are not lawyers. Considering the different needs of those teams, building cohesion and developing different skills/abilities are all vital to success here.
There may be a particular project that will convince a GC to move roles into another organisation – spinning off a business, a stock market flotation or acquisition, for example. Alternatively, the opportunity to take on a broader remit at board level can offer new opportunities for career growth. Today’s in-house lawyer has a much longer and more interesting career path than ever before.
Sometimes we see GCs becoming Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – however, this step still tends to be the preserve of the finance leaders. But this too may change as individual organisations see the advantages of tailoring leadership choices to their specific goals. The lawyer CEO may yet have its day, especially as we see more lawyers working across business units and partnering with their CEOs.
To move in-house does not mean staying with one organisation or only experiencing one kind of legal advisory role. This landscape is changing rapidly and the opportunities for ambitious GCs are moving with it. For those with the risk appetite to be decisive and to try new ventures, the career of the GC can offer variety, a huge opportunity to stand out and the chance to build a rewarding and versatile legal career.
By Tim Hammett, CEO, Fox Rodney
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* source – thelawyer.com