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Practical tips for new general counsel

Getting up to speed and aligned with business priorities

 Today's business organizations operate in an increasingly complex environment shaped by globalization, regulatory expansion, and rising stakeholder demands. General counsel face significant pressure to provide quality legal services, control costs, manage risk effectively, and contribute to business strategy.

Given the range of competencies needed to balance and perform these functions, even the most seasoned lawyer may find it challenging to move into a new general counsel role. This article discusses practical suggestions to help lawyers successfully transition to a general counsel position.

Prepare for the job

A smooth transition to a general counsel role takes careful planning. Before starting the job, incoming general counsel should lay a foundation for success by:

  • Gathering additional information about the company, its industry, and the legal department.
  • Meeting with key stakeholders such as the CEO, other executive team members, the board of directors, direct reports, and strategic peers within the company.
  • Thoughtfully preparing a message to introduce the new general counsel to the organization.
  • Planning how to approach the first 90 days in the role.

Draft 90-day action plan

The first months on the job can be a critical time for new general counsel. The 90-day action plan should focus on developing information the general counsel needs to succeed in the new role, including information about:

  • The company, its business, and its operations.
  • The strategies, missions, goals, challenges, risks, and key initiatives of the company and the legal department.
  • How the general counsel should interact with different stakeholders.
  • The performance expectations for the role.

Understand the company and its business

The new general counsel’s first step toward building credibility and effectiveness within a company is thoroughly understanding the company and its business, including:

  • The business structure and type of entity.

  • The size and locations of its operations.

  • The industry.

  • The corporate culture, risk profile, and risk tolerance.

  • The governance and decision-making processes, including the legal department’s decision-making role.

Build relationships

Building relationships is crucial for new general counsel to succeed. Successful general counsel have and develop:

  • Interpersonal skills.

  • The ability to read the audience, including their goals, objectives, values, concerns, and interests.

  • The agility to modify and customize an approach to fit different groups and individuals.

  • Shared experiences with stakeholders.

  • A proven track record of calmness, clear thinking, and leadership during crises.

To become a core part of the leadership team, the general counsel should:

  • Understand what company leadership considers to be success for the legal department and how the general counsel’s success will be measured.

  • Learn how to present information to the leadership team.

  • Be a business partner by asking relevant questions and demonstrating knowledge of crucial business issues.

  • Avoid being viewed as a one-dimensional player who only recognizes legal issues.

  • Be patient, genuine, and visible.

  • Be enthusiastic and interactive, share information, and solicit feedback.

Lead the legal department

The legal department's performance has a direct impact on the new general counsel's success. To optimize department performance, the new general counsel should:

  • Assess the department by:

    • Conducting meetings with each team member to learn about the department's operations and each member's role, goals, objectives, and challenges and to articulate general counsel’s management style, objectives, and expectations

    • Working with each team member to get to know them and give them an opportunity to better understand the general counsel

    • Analyzing each team member's skills, strengths, and weaknesses to determine if the department is properly staffed

    • Looking for talent development opportunities for department members

  • Communicate regularly with the department to share information and ensure department members understand the general counsel’s expectations by:

    • Holding regular team meetings to review the status and staffing needs of important projects

    • Explaining that the general counsel wants to build a hard-working, results-oriented, creative, and strategic department

    • Modeling expected behavior by being open, honest, and genuine

    • Demonstrating that the general counsel values team members' opinions by encouraging and acting on feedback

  • Develop a strategic plan for the legal department that aligns with the company’s strategic business objectives. This plan:

    • Provides department members with a clear understanding of both short- and long-term objectives

    • Focuses on what they must accomplish to avoid getting lost in the demands of their daily work

    • Guides the department to take actions and allocate resources to achieve those objectives

Evaluate legal operations

 New general counsel should evaluate the department’s operations and consider whether there are opportunities to save money and increase efficiency by:

  • Assessing how the department delivers its work product and considering whether new technology and processes can create cost-savings and efficiencies.

  • Understanding and assessing the department’s costs and allocation of resources, including personnel, technology, vendors, and outside counsel, and reviewing the department’s people, processes, and technology to discover efficiency opportunities and develop a cost management plan.

  • Evaluating the company's use of outside counsel by:

    • Meeting outside counsel

    • Measuring the value of outside counsel and determining whether they are providing quality and cost-effective services

    • Increasing the value of outside counsel and considering whether there are savings available through revised pricing models, redefined performance expectations, new strategies for increasing efficiency, and revised processes for measuring performance.

  • Determining how to manage outside counsel by reviewing the department’s policies and processes and identifying whether any changes are needed.

Implement metrics

General counsel need to be able to articulate the legal department's value proposition through metrics. To implement a system of metrics, the general counsel should:

  • Decide what to measure. Common workload and spending metrics used to measure law department performance include:

    • Staff productivity metrics

    • Outside counsel performance metrics

    • Department spend

  • Collect data through:

    • Technology solutions such as contract management and automated billing systems

    • Budget and spending reports from the accounting department

    • Performance evaluations of outside counsel and department personnel

    • Information from outside counsel

  • Learn how to present data in a consistent, clear, and concise manner.

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