Becoming general counsel: A 5-step game plan

How to become a general counsel and what to think, know, and master on your way

Many in-house lawyers have this question: how do I become general counsel? In particular, what skills should I develop if I have eyes on the big chair? If you aspire to become general counsel, it is never too early to start planning how to develop the right skills and ensure you are on the right people's radar.

Having sat in the chair three times myself, I’ll share some things you need to think about, know, or master on the path to becoming general counsel.

Do you genuinely want it?

First, you must decide whether you are truly interested in the job. Being “the boss” sounds good, but being general counsel is a tough job and involves a lot of long hours — and a lot of pressure. You must make critical decisions with little time and sparse facts. 

Your schedule is rarely your own, meaning you will spend many evenings, weekends, holidays, and vacations working. You will need to keep your phone on and close by 24/7 and it will be tough to balance work and family. As general counsel, there is no place to hide — you are the final decision point. 

On the plus side, there are many good things, including being part of the executive team, compensation, prestige, rewarding work, and implementing your vision for how a legal department should operate.

Get on “the list.”

Next, you need to let the right folks know about your interest, as it is highly unlikely that anyone just recognizes that you would be awesome in the role. It takes planning, hard work, and a little self-promotion. If you enjoy where you work now and think you would like to sit in the general counsel chair eventually, let your manager know about your interest

In these days of remote work, it’s important to stay visible. Seek honest feedback about your performance and what you need to do to make the succession plan for general counsel. Take your annual review seriously and head into those meetings with a plan to discuss your interest in the job and highlight your skills and accomplishments.

If your opportunities lie outside the company, approach a few legal recruiters and let them know of your interest so you are on their minds when opportunities arise.

Learn to think strategically.

Doing good legal work is table stakes; your executive team and business partners are looking for a lawyer who can think strategically. This means you can see more than just the immediate legal issue in front of you. It means you can “peer around corners” and see what’s coming down the pike and how it may impact your business legally and from an operational standpoint.

To think strategically, you must constantly scan the horizon for risk and opportunity and be able to quickly and appropriately communicate what you see and what you are thinking.

Build your executive presence.

You want to catch the eye of both general counsel and other company executives. Remember that every interaction, meeting, and conversation with a vice president or higher at the company is an audition for the general counsel job. They will remember whether you come across as a clown or someone they would trust running the legal process in the event of company litigation or a significant M&A transaction — someone they would trust and follow in a crisis. Understand that everything about you — from how you talk to how you dress — is being filed away for future consideration.

Accordingly, be sure to come across as executive material in your dealings with the business. Much of this involves how you present legal issues and advice to your audience. Everyone wants to see gravitas in their lawyers — can you convey that heft?  Can you contextualize complex legal issues so that non-lawyers can understand? Can you be a teacher? Are you needlessly wordy or overly talkative? At meetings, do you weigh in with good questions to show you’re paying attention and make solid points or observations when appropriate? 

You should be confident but not arrogant. Remember the basics: sit up straight, don’t slouch, and make good eye contact. Be able to think on your feet, but go into every meeting already thinking about the types of questions you may get and what your answers will be. If you want to be general counsel in the future, start acting, talking, and dressing like one now.

Expand and enhance your legal skills.

General counsel must deal with and make decisions about many types of legal issues, from litigation to contracts to intellectual property to corporate governance. Take advantage of every opportunity to acquire skills in multiple areas of the law. Raise your hand and volunteer to help. You don’t have to be an expert, but being familiar with the basics of litigation or commercial agreements will serve you well.

Look for CLE courses to fill in the gaps. Getting certified in data privacy law may just be putting a stamp on things you already know; still, it is a significant credential to have in the current cyber risk environment. Likewise, you may think being chair of the local bar association’s employment law section is mundane, but it can be very impressive to non-lawyers like the CFO.

The point is to always look for ways to expand and enhance your legal skills and credentials because they will mean something when you go for the general counsel position.

Build up your soft skills. Being a good lawyer is not enough anymore — the C-suite and the board assume you have good legal skills. It is, therefore, critical that you can demonstrate non-legal skills, or soft skills. Here are just a few that matter:

  • Demonstrate good communication skills: In writing and orally
  • Display sound judgment, ethics, and integrity: Make good decisions with imperfect information in grey areas of right and wrong
  • Possess business and financial acumen: Understand balance sheets, profit and loss statements, and cash flow
  • Use legal efforts to advance business interests strategically
  • Think about the “big picture”
  • Partner easily: Influence decisions and be self-aware
  • Be proactive: Have the ability to get things done
  • Show the ability to effectively “triage” problems
  • Prove your discipline and drive: First one in, last one out
  • Manage crises well
  • Act like an owner, not a W2 employee
  • Think globally
  • Try new things: Be comfortable with technology and willing to adapt

If you want to become general counsel, be sure to promote the full range of your skills to your manager — and the existing general counsel — but know that in the end, you are responsible for your career and seeking out opportunities. 

One rarely gets “discovered”; if you have the drive and desire, now is the time to start creating your plan to get to the top. Fortunately, in-house lawyers with access to Practical Law have a wealth of resources to help them do just that.

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