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Tips for becoming a better GC

I recently spent a Sunday acting as an executive in residence at the Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel run by the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association and Rotman School of Management. This seminar was being led by one of the most innovative and talented leaders in the legal profession, Ken Fredeen, the general counsel at Deloitte Canada. In this particular module, we were discussing the role of the general counsel. Some of the key issues included:

•    Why do we need general counsel?

•    What are the key attributes of a successful GC? and

•    How can a GC adapt to the changing legal practice?

There were some great insights shared by the students and Fredeen regarding the key attributes or strategies that will assist a GC — especially a GC new to his or her role — to be successful. In this article, I am sharing some of the ideas and insights that were raised by the class and that I found particularly helpful to share with you:

Be a strategic partner

To be an effective GC, you must be a strategic business partner. This means not only becoming involved with the business at the strategic and executive level but also having the tools to know and understand the practice and theory behind the business. Every student in that class on Sunday, by enrolling in the program, understood the importance of this point.

Use legal resources wisely

An effective GC must consider and properly balance all sources of legal resources available to him or her to address changing demands and workloads. This means considering and finding an optimal balance between the resourcing options available to him or her. These include the use of external counsel, contract staff augmentation, remote hiring/outsourcing options, etc.  

Meet with the team regularly

A GC and his or her legal team must have at least weekly face-to-face team meetings, where the members of the team share what projects they are working on, recommended strategies, best practices and updates on their workload and, finally, share wins, losses, and concerns with each other.

Independence for the GC is critical

Although the GC is often part of the executive team as noted in the point above, he or she must also represent the best interests of the company and the shareholders, which may not always be aligned with the interests of the executive team. Finding the right balance in understanding this fit and dealing with potential conflicts between the two is key for a long and successful career.

As part of the reading materials, the class also discussed the article, “7 Pieces of Advice for a New General Counsel,” written by Marc E. Manly that provides great advice regarding enhancing the performance of a GC. I highly recommend this read for new general counsel. Below I expand on three of these tips that I think are especially important to consider.

All external counsel should be assigned and hired by you as the GC

This is very important as it allows you to track and monitor the legal spend on external counsel. But, more importantly, maintaining control also helps ensure you are obtaining consistent advice and that the advice and the knowledge obtained is properly distributed and utilized by others. At the end of the day, the legal department is responsible for any legal matters that arise from business decisions taken, starting off on the right foot, and ensuring advice received is proper before a matter “blows up” is critical.

Be responsive

I am as guilty as anyone of this. When critical and urgent matters arise, the e-mail inbox quickly fills up and it takes you days to get out of the e-mail jail. As a common human response, you fight or take flight. This means that priority e-mails are addressed as soon as possible, but others linger and fall through the cracks. The article provides the following useful rule that can be communicated to the business group: any communication received before noon got a reply by the end of that day; any received after noon was answered by the next morning.

The writer also recommends that you respond within these parameters, even if the response is initially a pro forma “I have your e-mail, but I am tied up in another matter until Monday — can the matter wait until then, or can I get a colleague to help on this?” This makes a lot of sense, as it not only shows responsiveness but also creates a way of filtering the time sensitive from the less urgent matters.

Don’t be afraid to say don’t know right now

As general counsel, we are often asked to deal with a broad range of commercial issues ranging from tax, competition, labour and employment to franchise legislation. It is imperative that you get comfortable with letting the client know that you may not have the answer, but you will get it. It is better to answer this way than to make a mistake.  

I hope these tips help as you transition into the GC role or hope to become a better GC. Also remember that if you feel more knowledge is needed to jump-start your career, the Business Leadership program for In-House Counsel, The Osgoode Leadership and Business Academy for Corporate Counsel, and other similar programs may be perfect for you!

  • General Counsel

    Harpreet K. Sidhu
    Excellent article and very helpful!
    Love reading your column.
  • General Counsel

    Garcia Fernando
    Thank you very much Harpreet! I sincerely appreciate your comments and you taking the time to read the articles.
  • General Counsel

    Ken Fredeen
    Fernando, thanks for your participation in the CCCA/Rotman program. It was great to have you there and for you to provide your insights to the group. Understanding the role of General Counsel, the risks/challenges and uniqueness is critically important. The more we explore and share ideas and thoughts, the better for all of us. Canadian lawyers are some of the best in the world, and in my opinion we are well suited to be some of the best general counsel in the world. Congratulations to Rotmans and CCCA in partnering on this inhouse program.
  • General Counsel

    Garcia Fernando
    Thank you Ken. Great job and great initiative all around. With regard to your assessment of General Counsels in Canada, I believe you are very much correct. I see so much talent, drive and ambition all around us. Thank you!