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Skill sets for the future general counsel

In-house Coach
|Written By Fred Krebs
Skill sets for the future general counsel

The Association of Corporate Counsel recently released its first executive series report“Skills for the 21st Century General Counsel.” It contains a wealth of information useful to current GCs and those who aspire to that role. I had the pleasure and privilege of working on this project.

 The report reviewed the evolution of the role of the general counsel, noted the skills necessary for success and predicted future skill sets.

General counsel add value in three major areas:
• leading the law department,
• counseling the CEO and board of directors, and
• providing strategic advice.

We analyzed today’s skill sets in each of these three buckets and offered “implications for skill sets of future general counsel.” Stated simply, the successful GC of the future will be “more than just a lawyer” and technical legal skills alone will not be enough. The best GCs also will demonstrate counselling skills, business acumen, and a broad strategic vision.

Below are some highlights from the report.

There were no surprises regarding what will be necessary to manage the future law department.  The successful GC will need the following:
• curiosity and an understanding of the business, including how it makes money, what its customers want, its strategy, and core values;
• an ability to develop both talent within the department and relationships with people throughout the organization; and
• strong budget and resource/project management skills.

We expect the role of counselor in chief to the CEO and board of directors to continue to grow. It will require the following:
• the ability to listen and respond appropriately to the nuances of the situation (this also has been described as emotional intelligence);
• communication skills, including the ability to craft and deliver messages appropriate to the audience (messages must be tailored to the recipient); and
• the courage to maintain your integrity and independence when necessary. (This is not new and is the subject of much commentary but as the role of the GC in the organization expands it will become increasingly important.)

We project the greatest evolution of the general counsel role will take place through strategic input in both legal and business matters. GCs will have opportunities to be strategic in at least three areas:
• leading their law departments;
• using the law to advance corporate strategic goals; and
• as a member of the executive team contributing to business decisions.

Unfortunately, the principle training grounds for in-house counsel (law school, law firms and law departments) rarely offer formal programs to teach or develop strategic skills. We interviewed several search consultants during our research and they repeatedly emphasized the importance of broad experience both inside and outside your organization, a strong network that helps broaden your perspective, and the curiosity as well as the “rigour and discipline” to look around and “figure what else you should be paying attention to.”

At the first level, strategic leadership may include totaling revamping how the law department purchases and delivers legal services. The next step would be to use the law to make meaningful contributions to the company. The final step will be as part of the executive team and to contribute in much broader ways where “at the board and C-suite level, you share responsibility for the success of the organization.”

We concluded as the role of the GC evolves beyond “simply advising on the law to counseling and offering strategic input” this creates an opportunity for the GC to help organizations innovate effectively.  The “concept of lawyer as innovator may seem counter-intuitive,” yet the “general counsel with a sophisticated understanding of the business and risk management is in a unique position to perform this function.”

The report finishes with the following thought:

“Many general counsel may not feel comfortable playing a role in innovation. They may see their jobs as protecting the company, not expanding boundaries. As general counsel become more integrated into the executive team and the boardroom, however, there is a significant opportunity to help the company adapt to a dynamic environment by leveraging their position and training in ways that promote a healthy culture of innovation.”

The general counsel as corporate innovator — it is an interesting concept worth exploring as we begin a new year.


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