For many lawyers, you’ve made it to the top of the legal food chain when you have reached the goal of becoming a GC.  Today, much of Big Law’s fate seems to be in the hands of GCs as legal departments hold beauty contests to hire law firms and demand steeper legal fee discounts and cost efficiencies.  GCs play a huge role within their company and it’s a big responsibility to be a GC.  GCs seem to hold all the power, as even my February blog on how to get GCs to like you (and of course, choose your legal services) benefited from a higher number of visitors than usual.

Surprisingly, I recently came across a legal career blog where a GC was asking career advice on how to change jobs to a #2 in-house legal position.  Wait!  This GC wanted to “downgrade” his top rank.  Can the life of a GC not be all that glamorous or great as many lawyers think?

After a closer look, there are high-stake demands taking away the shine of the GC brass ring.  First, the legal department under your command is viewed as a cost center in the company.  You face the same or even higher pressures than Big Law to be cost-efficient and to add value to the organization.  GCs find themselves constantly justifying legal jobs, including their own, and the paychecks that come with them.

Second, the buck stops with you.  Unfavorable legal results or outcomes have only the GC’s name on it, regardless of whether outside counsel or another in-house member screwed up.  And, a less obvious downside to being a GC is being dragged into human resources matters, especially for small companies.  This can quickly translate into you being the actual person to fire and lay off employees throughout the company.

However, don’t let the hard realities of being a GC make you throw away your GC career aspirations.  The life of a GC can be very exciting and fulfilling, if you come prepared for the job.  Here are some pointers they didn’t tell you in law school or even when you got the GC job.

  • More than just an attorney.  For a GC, legal pedigree and expertise on the law are a given.  Today, GCs have a seat at the senior leadership table, increasingly becoming business advisors to the CEO.  Think “four star General.” While never taking off the legal hat, a successful GC is business minded with in-depth knowledge of the company’s business and industry and financial acumen.
  • Being a generalist. Unlike being a partner in a certain legal practice area, such as securities or M&A, the GC position demands a generalist approach.  GCs are expected to provide legal advice on all areas and issues involving the business and industry.
  • Practical, business savvy solutions.  A GC no longer just manages legal risk of the company, but now actually partners with the business.  GCs need to understand the company’s strategy and business objectives to identify the pressure points.  A successful GC communicates the risks and legal issues involved in commercial decisions, provides options and then advices on the best course of action to help management make strategic business decisions.
  • Bottom line matters.  It is up to the GC to manage legal costs of the business by proactively understanding cost drivers that influence the company’s bottom line.  GCs manage law firm proposals and relationships for cost reduction, budget predictability and efficiencies.  Furthermore, a truly effective GC takes the extra step to educate management on the value being added to the business by each legal cost.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “The general counsel is now a core member of the top management team and offers advice not just on law and related matters but helps shape discussion and debate around business issues.”  To be a successful GC is not just about being a good lawyer, but rather being a respected legal and business advisor.

Lastly, an effective GC talks the talk to be heard and respected, by giving explanations in “plain English” and business terms that are relatable to company colleagues.  Playing the critical role of GC requires good, solid collaboration with company leaders of other functions, such as finance, human resources, information technology, R&D, sales and marketing, making you the “whole package” of a great (and glamorous) GC.

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