As business environments become more complex and nuanced, more attorneys with formative years in public or private legal practice see themselves advancing their career in general counsel roles. The opportunity to do challenging work while leading a company’s legal department is typically a big draw and this, alongside the sizable executive benefits of the role, leads many to conclude that an in-house position should be their next big step.
But getting in the door and becoming a successful general counsel may not be as straightforward as the decision to move in-house. The work of an internal counsel requires many specialized skills and attributes, and the requirements and experiences of the hiring organization usually drive candidate selection.
Consequently, it’s worth taking the time to understand the competencies an in-house role requires, what the selection process might entail, and how to successfully make the transition to internal corporate counsel.
Succeeding in a general counsel position requires a mix of technical and non-technical skills. While no lawyer can be expected to know the whole law, competent internal counsel are often generalists who have a fair grasp of basic legal principles across many legal fields.
In addition, they possess a range of “soft” skills such as strategic thinking, excellent communication, and sound judgment – all of which are vital in the consigliere role that a general counsel often occupies. Here’s a closer look at the skills spectrum outstanding candidates should have in their locker to stand out in this role.
General counsels have broad legal subject matter expertise. They are essentially “jacks of all trades” who must know a bit of everything. That said, they are still required to be masters of specific legal fields, especially those that impact directly on the organization’s ordinary business. Companies will want a candidate that has cognate experience within their industry and who can bring a demonstrable track record of successfully navigating complex issues within that sector.
It’s common to see organizations request candidates with experience in:
Companies in highly regulated industries will be particularly interested in candidates who have experience interacting with regulatory agencies. Being able to adroitly manage relationships with relevant agencies and knowing how to work through potentially dangerous government inquiries and investigations will be valuable.
Other legal expertise will be determined by the unique needs or position of the company. For instance, In-house attorneys at public entities will also require expertise in SEC disclosure and reporting. They must keenly understand public company requirements, governance obligations, and investor relations.
In terms of non-legal skills, sound judgment is perhaps the most important attribute that successful candidates must demonstrate. In their role, general counsel will often be required to evaluate and weigh multiple courses of action. They must be able to clearly and logically assess the inputs and potential outcomes of competing strategies and come to a sound decision. While judgment may not be the easiest of skills to acquire, it can be honed through experience – and therefore, hiring companies will insist on candidates with several years of know-how beneath their belts.
Apart from good judgment, general counsel must display excellent communication skills. A general counsel must be able to simplify and effectively present complex legal matters. Since they will be working with non-lawyers – both within and outside the c-suite – they need to be able to put the merits and demerits of various legal alternatives into plain words. The reverse will also be the case when communicating with other legal experts and outside counsel – they must be able to clearly explain the company’s business objectives to other legal minds.
Regardless of the candidate’s proposed role within the company, a successful general counsel must be able to think strategically and execute with efficiency. They should be able to anticipate and estimate legal issues such as regulatory, legal, and reputational risk. Being able to think and act proactively and decisively is an asset that companies will expect to see in their in-house counsel.
Finally, it’s critical for candidates to demonstrate visionary leadership and sound ethical conduct. In many ways, a general counsel operates as a guardian angel, assisting their company to navigate treacherous regulatory waterways and a potentially hazardous business landscape. They will be making and advising decisions where right and wrong may not always be clear. Therefore, they should have a strong ethical compass and clearly understand where the line between legal and unethical conduct lies.
Candidates who can demonstrate the traits and skills discussed above gain the opportunity to stand out to the hiring company. Even better, they secure the chance to shine throughout the process when they have a clear understanding of what to expect and steps to take. That’s what we turn to next.
Understanding the key phases of a general counsel recruitment, and beneficial positioning throughout, will be key to successfully entering a general counsel role. We’ve outlined some helpful tips below.
General counsel roles, particularly at the executive level, are typically filled by search firms in concert with the hiring company. Consequently, taking steps to become known by the major search firms is wise, even before an opportunity appears on the horizon. This way, you can stay top of mind when a suitable position opens.
Beyond this, it also pays to carefully cultivate a network of partners and other highly placed people at law firms. They do a lot of work for companies and are likely to be in the know, and can give you a solid reference, when their clients begin to consider hiring general counsel. Befriending practicing general counsel can also be helpful, because they are often invited to recommend suitable candidates.
As mentioned, a search firm will likely drive the general counsel hiring process. Firstly, it’s important to note that you’re not the search firm’s client. Its client is the company that has hired it to fill the position.
Usually, the process will begin with the search firm meeting the company to discuss and agree on the position profile and what a successful candidate should look like. Your first contact with the search firm will typically be in the form of a communication to gauge your interest in the role. If you are interested, the firm will share more detail about the role and request your current resume.
The search firm may conduct a preliminary interview before sharing your details with the hiring company. What follows afterwards will depend on the company’s internal recruitment process. There may be two or more interviews, typically in-person, and other on-site interactions. Don’t be irritated if the process seems to move slowly. Hiring at this level typically has several moving parts and there may be multiple schedules to juggle.
The whole process should take between four to six months from start to finish. If you’re successful, you’ll receive an offer from the company detailing your expected compensation, benefits, and other terms such as pension, retirement, and equity.
At Cowen Partners, our executive recruiters are exceptionally skilled at delivering in-demand candidates, no matter the need and across all industries. Backed by a proven executive recruiting process, we have been the partner of choice for startups, corporations, small businesses, non-profits, and more, meeting unique and critical recruitment needs across the entire C-suite, including CEOs, CFOs, COOs, CMOs, CIOs, CTOs, CHROs, VPs of sales, other VPs, directors, and several other leadership roles.
With our executive recruiters, you get senior partner-led searches, due diligence-run networking, meticulous candidate vetting, and so much more, all geared towards one goal — placing the very best talent as soon as possible, all while ensuring a seamless fit with your company culture, your big-picture objectives, and other factors. Plus, we have one of the highest candidate retention rates in the industry while consistently delivering world-class talent faster than the competition.
That’s how Cowen Partners has become a leading executive search firm nationwide, and it’s why our executive recruiters have a reputation for excellence and success.
We also invite you to continue exploring more executive recruiting insights from our team: