When I graduated from law school in 2005, I was confident I would embark on the “traditional” legal career path: work as an associate at a large law firm, burn the midnight oil, market my skills to clients, and, finally, land in the elite ranks of my firm’s partnership. That autumn, I started work at a large New York law firm, and began the long climb towards the coveted title of Partner.
Over the next few years, I changed firms a few times, seeking changes in the type of law firms and practice groups I worked with. Despite these generally positive changes, I couldn’t understand why my career didn’t feel quite right. I was at a great firm with great colleagues, but I was also in a partnership-track role. I had a high billable hour requirement with an increasing focus on marketing and building my own book of business. After years of dreaming about being at exactly this moment, I was unhappy and had to accept that I no longer wanted to be a law firm partner. I needed to start thinking about pursuing an in-house counsel role.
Like me, many attorneys begin their legal careers moving from one law firm to the next before they transition to working directly for companies (often, former clients) — whether they choose in-house legal roles or move into a more business-oriented career track. When choosing to continue in a purely legal role outside of the law firm environment, a path lawyers commonly take is working as general counsel.
However, as I learned when I made the transition from law firm associate to in-house counsel, the skills and background needed to become a successful GC are not always learned during an attorney’s formative years in law firms. For instance, law firm lawyers typically need to be subject matter experts. You’re not expected to be able to spot legal problems or issues outside of your specific area of expertise. On the other hand, general counsels are expected to be dexterous in all areas of the law. In fact, some GCs joke that the longer they work as general counsels, their real subject matter expertise becomes “issue spotting” and is no longer “securities law” or “bankruptcy litigation.”
Another example is the drastic difference between law firm and in-house communication styles. As a law firm lawyer, you must be an effective communicator, however, you are typically communicating with other lawyers — whether those are your law firm colleagues, or you’re relaying information to the general counsel of your client company. As a general counsel, you must master the art of communicating complex legal ideas to a non-legal audience, as well as be adaptable and resilient when it takes several tries to correctly communicate your ideas.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of characteristics, of course, but you understand my point. So whether you’re new to the in-house world or want to continue growing as a GC, below are some tips from my own experience for how you can maximize your success.
Get to know your stakeholders
The first impression you make during your initial weeks as a GC will stick with you throughout the rest of your time at the company. You should immediately meet with an organization’s key stakeholders: the CEO and board members (or their private company equivalents) and others in leadership roles to understand their objectives for you; the company; and how they define success. They will look to you to plan and develop any short and long-term initiatives that will shape their legal department and organizational efforts.
Learn how to be a solo superstar
You’ll be shocked to learn that only 100 lucky lawyers will wind up as the GCs of Fortune 100 companies with thousand-person legal departments at their disposal! Most in-house lawyers wind up at small companies — some with no other lawyers besides the GC. Even many large companies have very small legal departments, as some companies have traditionally felt comfortable relying heavily on outside counsel. If you find yourself at the head of a legal department like this, don’t be afraid of this great opportunity! Take it as a chance to become an expert issue spotter and learn to manage the legal department’s budget to effectively leverage your internal and external resources.
Develop financial fluency
I sometimes joke that I went to law school because I thought there would be no math. That said, being a GC is like being the head of any other department in a company. You will be required to manage a budget and be accountable for your spending. Typically, this has to do with how you allocate resources to outside counsel. Failure to be minimally financially fluent could possibly be fatal to your career!
Developing these skills is not something that is taught in law school or at law firms. But there are tons of on-line programs that can help. Coursera and edX have both offered (free) programs that have helped me, and I recently joined a (paid) network called The Forem, that offers a four part course on various aspects of financial fluency for managers.
Become an expert on your company’s business
The job of a general counsel isn’t just to provide legal advice and manage legal work, you are a critical business partner. Understanding a business isn’t often required in a law firm because you’re typically working on discrete legal matters, but a GC must know about their company’s business model and business philosophy in order to effectively and successfully approach their organization’s legal matters.
As a general counsel, you will wear many hats. You are your company’s source of legal advice, you will oversee their marketing communications, and you will drive regulatory enforcement. It’s an exciting and challenging career path, one that doesn’t look quite like any other career in the legal sector. By following these tips and developing your own toolkit, you will continue to hone your talents and establish yourself as a leader in the industry.