The Lawyers Career Blog

The General Counsel as a Successful Leader: Are there Common Themes?

September 11, 2017

There have been a number of articles and conferences lately focusing on leadership traits of the successful General Counsel and other rising in house legal professionals. Princeton Legal Search Group recently moderated a panel discussion of prominent General Counsels in the program: How do you Grow, Manage and Lead Success?

The insights of the panelists are instructive and three broad themes emerge about successful leadership. First, General Counsels who are successful leaders are adept at delivering value to the core businesses of their organizations and are able to shift to leading and managing within a business as well as advising across multiple businesses. Second, they recruit and manage teams and then develop and train the talent on their teams so that high levels of retention are achieved. Retention of the “right” team is critical. Successful in house lawyers understand and respond to internal client requests and do so in a way that reflects recognition and understanding of existing institutional culture. The need for institutional knowledge and understanding an organization’s operating culture are fundamental to the success of the legal team. Third, successful General Counsel leaders measure and communicate results that their legal departments achieve, especially when operating in restrictive time frames and within budgets. The need for business communication skills extend to the Board Room and to external reporting to state and federal government organizations as well.

Value Added to the Core Business
During the panel discussion, one of the General Counsel panelists spoke about the importance of Six Sigma and understanding the value of data and technology as drivers of a business. In learning and speaking the language of Six Sigma with his internal business clients, the legal function has been assimilated into the business strategy. The legal department is perceived as a business partner and not an obstacle to business.

Another General Counsel panelist spoke about the critical importance of knowing who your client is within your organization to provide context for appropriate legal counsel. Is there more than one client or internal customer within your organization? Do you know who your client is? The answers to these fundamental questions will inform how positive alliances are advanced. All of the panelists spoke about the value of their internal reputation and learning how to adapt the delivery of their legal services within the culture or context of their organization.

Recruiting, Managing and Developing Talent
One of the General Counsels believes that re-organizing and investing in training programs meets internal customer needs for flexibility and adaptability. When there are smaller legal departments cross training and flexibility are the keys to success. Another General Counsel at a public company mentors his lawyers formally and informally and hires coaches to help attorneys on his team progress in their career development.

Repeatedly we are asked to recruit and deliver candidates that can understand the core business and communicate with internal clients. Responding to institutional knowledge and culture is a fundamental driver of success. Have you ever observed a professional who does not fit in? If they last within the organization does their career advancement progress?

Several of the panelists spoke to the value of diversity recruiting and employing external resources when necessary. Think and recruit outside the box was a strong and consistent message. The panelists in general agreed that this was the most challenging component of leadership and were willing to spend time and resources to ensure success.

Measuring and communicating results:
Measuring results is driven from data collection and assessment which generally is driven by technology. An institution’s ability to commit resources to technology may be outside the General Counsel’s role. However, as a department question, all agreed that harnessing technology is value added to their success. Technology is the key to communicating results and managing on time and within budget. Legal departments are constantly required to do more with less.

Taking the time and effort to understand the metrics and being able to communicate performance on those metrics is vital to the department’s success internally and with the Board of Directors and external government reporting agencies

Communicating performance and reporting on metrics is one form of communication and a second equally important communication competency is the art of business communication skills.


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