General counsels are currently expected to take on more responsibilities than ever before within their organizations. In the past, their main job was to guard the company against legal and ethical offenses, but the role is so much more than that now. In addition to avoiding legal infractions, general counsels are expected to provide strategic planning advice for the executive team. In fact, many directors believe one of the general counsel’s most valuable functions is to advise the board as well as the executive team on business strategy.
New corporate realities have evolved over the years to include a diverse scope of enterprise risks which has correspondingly broadened the role of in-house counsel. Executive teams are looking for general counsels who can not only juggle the litigation aspects of the business but who can also contribute to the company goals. Ultimately, a GC needs to be able to fulfill business promises, manage the legal department, and provide significant company value.
When looking for a general counsel, most directors and officers are looking for someone with two main attributes: in-depth legal expertise and sound judgment. The third attribute, however, that many teams highly prize is business acumen. Company leaders believe a general counsel with these three attributes will be successful in the position and will be a valued strategic advisor to the company.
It’s expected that a general counsel will have broad legal knowledge, but legal acumen is no longer enough to succeed as a corporate legal executive. General counsels need to be willing to acquire a better understanding of the business and industry they work in. A well-rounded GC will contribute to the growth and success of a company, not just serve as a legal watchdog.
What business leaders are starting to realize is that general counsel can provide better legal advice when they have a thorough understanding of the business and industry. A GC is involved in important contract negotiations and makes impactful company decisions on a regular basis.
A deeper understanding of internal and external company dealings allows the GC to weigh the various business implications and make a decision that will benefit the company. In-house counsel with a strong grasp on enterprise risk management as well as a solid understanding of the business and industry can provide much more value to the business strategy on a regular basis.
A majority of companies do not have a solid general counsel succession plan in place. Many law departments are running on lean budgets so it can be difficult to single out a candidate for succession. It’s also difficult to determine a general counsel’s successor when the company attorneys all work on the day-to-day business needs and are rarely involved with higher-level risk and governance issues.
In most cases, companies look to an executive recruiting firm to benchmark internal candidates against external talent. While internal candidates may have the business knowledge executive teams seek, the dynamic role and long list of GC expectations make finding the right candidate for the job a high priority. Companies don’t want to be limited to internal applicants, so they open the role up to external candidates to find the very best match for their needs.
Culture fit and the ability to act as a reliable advisor are two key factors directors typically consider when searching for in-house counsel. Emotional intelligence, in particular, is prized amount GC candidates because high emotional intelligence often signals better stress management during high-stress situations. People with high EI are also more likely to build strong relationships and are known for being thoughtful. These two characteristics make it easier for a GC to connect with others and become a well-trusted advisor.
Corporate directors today are looking for a lot more in a general counsel than legal advice. Expectations for GCs are high, and these expectations aren’t likely to change in the future. When searching for a general counsel, it would be wise to seek a candidate with cross-educational training in business or someone who has extensive on-the-job experience. A great general counsel candidate will have just the right mix of legal acumen, business insight, and strategic know-how. A combination of these three competencies makes a strong candidate who will succeed in the expected role and contribute to the company’s overall growth.
Cowen Partners is a national executive search and consulting firm. Our clients are both small and large, publicly traded, pre-IPO, private, and non-profit organizations. Clients are typically $50 million to multi-billion dollar revenue Fortune 100 companies or have assets between $500 million to $15 billion. Successful placements span the entire C-Suite and include VP and director level leadership roles.
The general counsel position is a major part of the executive leadership team. You need someone who displays great leadership skills, sound judgment, and a strong sense of ethics. Finding a candidate who meets all of these expectations as well as your business needs can be difficult. Before sitting down for an interview, you need to consider what skill set and competencies your company needs in a general counsel. For instance, if your company is expecting to start handling acquisitions, then someone with a corporate law background may be beneficial.
To get you started, below are five assessment questions you should be asking a general counsel candidate no matter the scope of the position.
Hiring outside counsel is expensive. By asking candidates this question, you can understand how the criteria a candidate uses to determine when to use inside attorney staff and when to hire outside help. It’s also helpful to know how a candidate determines which law firm to hire when seeking outside counsel.
You want to look for three main points in a candidate’s answer to this question.
The right candidate for the job will have the practical experience and a few recommendations for reducing spending in the law department. A candidate should be suggesting ideas such as relying on in-house legal services as well as utilizing smaller, more affordable, firms when seeking outside counsel.
You need someone who understands budget limitations and comes with creative ways to overcome monetary constraints.
Listen to how the candidate solved the problems as well as the overall outcome of the situation. Did the candidate work with stakeholders to develop a strategy? Did the candidate research unfamiliar topics?
The answer to this question will show you how each candidate will handle potential issues that arise at your company.
This question will also help you compare answers between candidates. What one person saw as challenging might be a normal business day for another candidate. The complexity of each challenge will show you the types of problems the candidates have experience handling so far.
It’s really important to understand a candidate’s risk tolerance and risk management. The right candidate will be able to demonstrate what was learned from a risky situation as well as explain how it was handled. If it didn’t go well, then this is an opportunity for the candidate to explain how it would be done better in the future.
Managing risk isn’t always easy and you need someone who can bounce back after an error and do better in the future.
The general counsel interacts with a number of different people, but regulators and the executive team are two important groups you need to ask about. You want a candidate who has experience working with regulators and who has an organization system in place for maintaining documents.
Since the general counsel will be working alongside your executive team, you want to know how well candidates are currently working with their teams. High-level responsibilities and an expanded role outside of the legal department are two strong signs that a candidate has earned the trust of their executive team.
Including these five questions in your interview will give you a solid understanding of each candidate’s key competencies. The general counsel is a crucial member of your executive team, so understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate is essential to your business.