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GC best practices
9 min read

The Modern GC: A Business Leader with a Legal Background

The General Counsel (GC) role is evolving, serving as an opportunity for organizational growth. On a recent episode of Cockpit Counsel, Ari Buchler – an investor, advisor, and business leader with an impressive succession of GC roles – stated, "Because of your leadership skills and your knowledge of the business, you might be given another function to manage. That's an opportunity to divorce, or at least apply, your management and leadership skills outside of an area of your expertise. I think that's one of the greatest transitions you can make as a GC or lawyer.” 

GCs in 2022 are well prepared. They’re leading teams that create data privacy programs, close deals with sales, have navigated through Covid-19 regulations, and much more. These leaders have positioned themselves as strategic business partners with legal backgrounds. 

In this two-part blog series, we’ll explain how to build a brand as a GC that will earn you a seat at the executive table. 

Shift away from being the office of “no.” 

GCs must reorient their mindsets to include a business perspective. Bloomberg Law suggests GCs use “no” sparingly – and offer alternatives instead. Adopting this reinforces the role of GCs in solving complex business problems.

This is must-do work to change misconceptions and dissolve stereotypes. On a recent episode of Cockpit Counsel, Danielle Sheer, Chief Legal and Compliance Officer at Commvault, suggests that legal is a company’s “central nervous system.” She reminds listeners that “all the data, insights, and perspectives that come across a GC’s desk make them an ideal innovator.” 

The challenge to saying “yes” is balancing both the business opportunity and the legal concern. Remember, your goal is to make the company successful – not just mitigate risk. This starts with your mindset. 

“You need to make your decision right out of the gate,” LinkSquares’ Chief Legal Officer, Tim Parilla, says. “Are you a businessperson with a legal background, or are you a lawyer who’s trying to play business games?”

No is often the easy way out. A truly commercial lawyer works through a crisis and embraces the consequences of risk-taking. “Unless a business is fundamentally flawed, you can manage and overcome a crisis,” Parilla guides. 

Boost Your Legal Team's Reputation

Take more risks.

Lawyers who focus only on risk avoidance lose the trust of their executive teams. This is the quickest way to have CEOs and other executives only view you as a supplier of legal information.

In a recent article, Parilla shares how misplaced hesitancy hurts the GC brand: “It is impossible to avoid risk 100% of the time and run a successful business,” he guides. 

There is a long way between risk-taking and a worst-case scenario for most decisions. Help manage toward better business outcomes, and you’ll see your brand elevated at the highest levels.

Not all risk-taking is created equal, however. 

Don’t overcompensate and become the “yes” person. Strike a balance – offer legitimate counsel without curbing business growth. Understand objectives and project details. Get clarity on the “why” behind a law. You’ll better understand risk/reward trade-offs and generate ideas for improving execution.      

Prioritize internal relationships.

The best lawyers aren’t bottlenecks; they’re business enablers. And they achieve this by seeing the entire company landscape. 

Leadership consultancy Spencer Stuart suggests that GCs build associations, trust, and respect with a variety of colleagues, the CEO, and even the board of directors. To develop these relationships, they cite a key practice: understanding an individual’s goals, objectives, values, and interests. When you know these, it is easier to pitch an idea, sound an alarm, or offer advice on a risky contract.

Emma McFerran, SVP of legal at Lyst, agrees that GCs must become business partners: “The value in my relationship with our CEO is that I can be a sounding board on a whole range of business issues and opportunities, whether legal or otherwise.”

When GCs dig in alongside colleagues, Sheer suggests that they are actually “teaching the company how to get value out of the legal team.” This prompts respect and better engagement.

Ari Buchler says, “The GC role really is one of the few roles of the company, aside from the CFO, that has visibility to all functions in a company and works with all functions. It puts the GC in a unique position to learn a lot from their executive peers across the functional landscape.” 

We’ll be back next week with more principles to build your brand as a legal leader. Can’t wait? Download the full guide here today. 

Alyssa Verzino is a Senior Content Marketing Manager at LinkSquares.