How to Become General Counsel: 3 Tips
We recently read an article about the "7 Secrets to Becoming General Counsel" and were inspired to distill the article for the busy in-house attorneys among you. The seven secrets were gleaned for us, by Corporate Counsel, by interviewing existing general counsel on how they got to their positions.
While we whittled down the message, we also consolidated the seven secrets to three tips. Even a busy in-house lawyer like you will have time to read and follow these tips. The next time you ask yourself if you are "GC material," the answer will be "yes."
1. Be Business-Minded
Perhaps one of the most important tidbits of information is that lawyers need to be business minded (ahem, we told you so). General Counsel and Secretary Don Liu, of Xerox Corporation recommends reading financial or business periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal, in order to gain a broader understanding and enables "you to sound less like a lawyer, but more like a businessman."
Taking that one step further, two GCs recommend ditching the "legalese" (i.e., talking like outside counsel). Instead, they recommend not only really knowing and understanding the client's industry and business, but also recommend talking like a business person. Several GCs noted that management and team work are paramount -- a prospective GC must show that she can work in a team and lead. Finally, you need to remember that the "primary reason that you are at [the] company ... is to help your client make money," and that requires that you think like a business person.
2. Be Flexible
You need to be flexible in two areas: practice area and personal living. With regard to practice area, if only focus on M&A, try to gain some experience in other areas of the legal department. If you are going to eventually lead the law department, then you need to understand all that the law department does. In addition, you may need some flexibility in where you are willing to live. If you want a big opportunity, sometimes you need to follow it and be willing to relocate.
3. Be the Best
Ok, you don't have to be the best, but you better be damned good. You need to stand out from the rest, and you need to be the person that people go to for assistance.
Becoming general counsel is not something that happens overnight, but like great empires, must be built consistently with time. Put the work in and be willing to learn all aspects of the business, as well as all the legal issues the company deals with. In time, you too can become GC.
Editor's Note, June 7, 2016: This post was first published in June, 2014. It has since been updated.