The Journey to Becoming General Counsel: More Than Just Legal Expertise

In the competitive world of legal leadership, the role of a General Counsel (GC) stands out as a coveted position. However, the path to this pinnacle is not merely about legal acumen but encompasses a blend of soft skills, strategic decisions, and a dash of the 'wow' factor.

The Journey to Becoming General Counsel: More Than Just Legal Expertise

The Mythical Expectations of a GC During a BarkerGilmore panel on the journey to becoming a GC, Laura Stevens, the GC of Cengage Group, humorously highlighted the seemingly exaggerated expectations set by some companies. She quipped, “Don’t be intimidated. To match every quality listed in some job descriptions, you’d practically need to be 250 years old.”

The Realities of the Role While many lawyers aspire to the GC role, the journey can seem daunting. A significant challenge is that boards often prefer candidates with prior GC experience, sidelining potential first-timers. This preference is evident in the 2022 data from legal executive search firm Spencer Stuart, which revealed that 53% of Fortune 1000 GC hires were external.

Laura Stevens: A Case Study in Career Progression Stevens, a Columbia University law graduate, began her career as an associate at Thacher, Proffitt & Wood. She later joined Cengage, where she climbed the ranks from assistant general counsel for intellectual property to senior VP and deputy general counsel. Her journey wasn't always straightforward; she admitted to sticking to her designated role initially. However, her proactive approach to taking on 'stretch assignments'—projects outside her usual remit—gained her the respect and trust of executives and board members.

The Ingredients for Success Marla Persky, a senior adviser at BarkerGilmore, emphasizes the importance of business acumen, communication prowess, and creative problem-solving for GC candidates. John Gilmore, the managing partner of BarkerGilmore, adds that while legal experience, sound judgment, and leadership skills can get a candidate an interview, it's the intangibles not listed on a resume that secure the position. These include the ability to influence, earn trust, and project gravitas.

Gilmore also highlights the significance of self-awareness. He advises candidates to seek candid feedback on their soft skills from outside their immediate circle. He believes that possessing gravitas, which is not about being loud but compelling others to listen, is crucial.

Networking and Visibility The power of networking cannot be understated. Persky stresses the importance of both internal and external networking. For those working remotely, attending meetings in person can enhance visibility and foster relationship-building.

Embracing Risks For those eyeing the GC role, Gilmore has a clear message: be adventurous. This might mean seeking challenging assignments, continuous learning, or even relocating for new opportunities. He firmly believes that lawyers who shy away from risks are not cut out for the GC role.

The journey to becoming a GC is multifaceted. While legal expertise is foundational, soft skills, strategic career moves, networking, and a willingness to embrace risks are equally vital. As the legal landscape evolves, so do the expectations for its leaders. Those aspiring to the GC role must be prepared to meet and exceed these ever-changing demands.

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