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OLO: Only legal officer or optimal legal opportunity?

For many in-house counsel, the ultimate objective is to achieve the title of general counsel, chief legal officer or vice president, legal within a large, preferably multi-national, company. It is assumed that, in a larger organization, the role of the lawyer will be the most exciting and rewarding. The larger the company, the bigger the deals, the bigger the team, the bigger the challenges and the bigger the opportunities.

However, there is a little secret not often discussed or mentioned. It is, in many ways, one of the best-kept secrets within the legal profession, especially among in-house counsel. The secret is the benefit and spectacular opportunities associated with taking on an OLO (only legal officer) role within a smaller or mid-size organization.

Within larger organizations, in-house counsel tend to focus on a very specific or unique area of the law. Only with time, if they are lucky, will they be provided with the opportunity to move on to a different area. OLOs are true general practitioners. OLOs need to see, touch, feel and understand every part of the company’s business and they need to be able to provide advice and risk mitigation strategies within each of the specific areas of the law that impact the business.

There are other critical benefits of becoming an OLO.

OLOs tend to be found within more entrepreneurial organizations. For those interested in practising within a company that is growing, has an entrepreneurial mindset or culture and for those that view the role of the in-house counsel as a strategic business partner, the OLO role will be ideal.

As an OLO, you have an opportunity to impact all areas of the business and to establish new processes, procedures and leave a footprint on the success of the business. Conversely, in larger organizations, there is generally already a process and a way of doing business that must be followed, with a long process of approvals to make any changes to these.

Continuous learning: This may not be for everyone, as some prefer to find and park themselves within a niche area of the law they know well and never stray far from this comfortable area. Working within a bigger law department will mean you will have to infrequently stray beyond your areas of expertise. You will generally have a team of specialists that are subject-matter experts in their respective areas reporting to you. Your involvement and knowledge base within these will be limited.

Conversely, OLOs must have a current and deep understanding of the areas impacting the business. OLOs need to stay updated with the changes in practice, decisions and developments within all of these critical legal practice areas.

The role of an OLO offers the largest career and personal rewards (both extrinsic and intrinsic) for in-house counsel. The reason for this is simple. Even if your plan is to move on one day and work within a larger organization, the skillsets developed by an OLO are unmatched.

After several years, the OLO would acquire unmatched experience in dealing with a broad array of issues and practice areas, making them extremely valuable and mobile with regard to their career plans. If someone asks if you have experience in franchise, corporate, employment, insurance, real estate, corporate secretarial, contracts, litigation and compliance, your response will be: “Absolutely!”

Another benefit of the OLO role is that there is never a dull day and they are all different. There are always new challenges arising and new opportunities to address. This often means flying by the seat of your pants and working with external counsel and internal business partners to craft legal solutions and minimize risk. 

Some may see the biggest drawback of taking on the role of an OLO as being the inability to develop management and supervisory skills, as there are generally no legal or legal-support direct reports.

In reality, the same skills are developed if you consider that an OLO may not manage an internal legal team but manage the work and relationships with external lawyers and law firms. These skills tend to go to the core functions of an effective in-house, mainly identifying red flags in business operations, working with external counsel or internal resources to develop a legal strategy and ensuring the execution of that strategy.

It is possible that the OLO will also be asked to wear different hats, taking on compliance and HR roles, which may require the supervision of non-legal colleagues, but even without this, the possible diminished opportunity to supervise direct reports, in contrast to the skill development opportunities that arise from being an OLO, makes this largely a non-issue.  

Once you land an in-house position, you will either find yourself as a subject-matter expert within a large in-house department, as the head of a large legal department or as a, OLO, a jack-of-all trades within a smaller, faster-paced entrepreneurial company.

Which path you choose will largely be determined by the opportunities that arise and the choices you make. Having had the role of an OLO, the skill development opportunities, the career development opportunities and the opportunities to become a strategic business partner are optimized by taking on this role.