What do CEOs and boards of directors want from their General Counsel

While the profile and attraction of in-house legal roles have drastically increased, understanding of what it takes to be a successful in-house counsel and how it is different from a role in a law firm or litigator is not very well understood by a vast majority of lawyers who want in-house jobs. 

I spoke to 5 CEOs who have hired General Counsels or set up a legal team to learn about their experiences. What they said was markedly different than usually what the in-house counsels have to say.

Since it is often a CEO or CFO who decides who to hire as a General Counsel or Legal Head, I think this advice would be pretty important!

Here is what they said they look for:

We need you to anticipate problems rather than react

Some major amendments to consumer law got passed back in August. As an in-house counsel, did you follow the law from the inception of the bill to the point when it got notified?

Did you track the debates and conversations around it?

Have you considered how the new product liability clauses may impact your company?

Have you considered if the new law will in any way add new burdens or make things easy for your employer?

If not, then you are not doing enough to anticipate problems and handle them ahead of time. 

If we are expanding into new territory, in terms of business or a location, would my lawyer wait for me to ask him to figure out various licensing requirements and regulations that would apply to us or is she going to be ready with it when we need it?

Would I get a notice from a regulator because she could not foresee an unusual regulatory position?

Is my legal team already in touch with other lawyers in the jurisdiction figuring out what may go wrong and addressing those concerns ahead of time?

We need lawyers who fix problems after they arise, but we desperately want legal strategists who can foresee what’s going to happen, what we will need and give us heads-up, plus levels the path before us.

The problem is that this is not something that law firm lawyers or litigators are used to doing. There are some exceptional law firm partners who are valued by clients for their oracle-like ability to foretell troubles ahead and muster possible solutions along the way.

However, for in-house counsels, there are perhaps no bigger skill than what we are talking about here. 

It is difficult to find lawyers with this ability, but that is what makes a few in-house counsels indispensable. 

You need to help us to make better strategy and work well with sales, marketing and product development teams.

Are you the lawyer who tells us what we can’t do because the law says we can’t?

Or are you the kind of lawyer who tells us what the law prohibits and therefore find us an alternative way to achieve what we have to achieve?

The in-house counsel cannot just be a good lawyer. He also has to be an astute business executive who is a trusted business advisor to the sales head, the strategy team and the marketing brain of the company. You also need to work with the operations team and any other team that may exist when the need arises.

However, you cannot be the naysayer who just tells us the dry letter of the law. You need to be the enabler, the legal magician who comes up with clever ways to avoid illegality and still do the things we need to do.

Let me give you an example. Back in the day, foreign investment in online multi-brand retail was illegal. Some clever lawyers came up with a solution. 

How about we separate the retail company from the delivery business, the warehousing, and the infrastructure facility?

Suddenly, the retail part was just a thinly capitalized front while there were 3 other services companies serving it!

And of course, those companies raised tons of foreign investment, paving way for companies like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Pepperfry, Amazon India and Jabong.  

If you are not staying a step ahead of regulators and government and competitors, we have the wrong lawyer in our team.

Another side of this is that you need to understand and speak yourself in corporate-speak/ business jargon that is common in your industry. If you are working in SAAS and don’t know what is LTV or what is churn in SaaS context then it may be hard to collaborate with others in the business. 

If you do not know how Kanban or Scrum works, it may be hard for you to even comprehend what is going on in the product development cycle, which may lead you to make some costly mistakes in terms of protecting the IP of the company. 

Learning the speak the language of your colleagues is a part of your job as in-house counsel. 

You need to hire a team, build systems and structure the legal and compliance function

If you are the legal head or general counsel in my business, I would want you to do your own job well as a lawyer and strategist. However, that is not all! 

I want you to build a combination of support systems, monitoring mechanisms like compliance dashboards and MIS for existing litigations. 

I would also expect you to be able to build a team in place to leverage your expertise and structure it for a high level of efficiency.

Most lawyers who find themselves in the legal head or general counsel positions often get there due to their legal talent and proven ability to deliver results, which may not include any ability to manage or build a team. 

You also need to manage a large number of outside lawyers or litigations going on in different parts of the country or even world. It is no mean task! You need to have some serious management chops to pull off those things. 

If your goal is to become a general counsel, please understand that the role is not merely of a lawyer, but that of a vertical leader, who needs to bring significant management and leadership skills on board.

Please note that these skills are not available in the form of an MBA degree in a business school. You need to learn how to manage and build a team right from the beginning, or else you may not make it as a general counsel despite having all the relevant legal skills.

We want to save on legal costs, you need to make things efficient

Many growing businesses hire their first lawyer to save the regular outflow of money to outside lawyers and law firms. And it is often a good strategy. 

For businesses, legal is usually a cost. If your legal team is saving a lot of money by handling things in-house, that is a great value add. No company wants to hire in-house counsels to be just conduits between their business function and outside lawyers anymore, though that may have been the case a decade back. 

You need to build the capacity to do a lot of work inhouse and outsource only in special cases. When you outsource, it is your fiduciary duty to the company to not only get the desired results but also ensure that you are getting a reasonable rate and saving money for the business. 

This also means you need to figure out new technology and workflow that reduce redundancy and promote efficiency. If you have a tab on the latest legal innovation that reduces the time your lawyers take to research or close a case, that is awesome.

If you can introduce better project management software that ensures better collaboration between you and the outside lawyers, that is a competitive advantage for your company.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *