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GC or Bust: Moving Up in the In-house World

By Diana Rubin – May 15, 2012 | The National Law Journal

As a legal recruiter specializing in finding lawyers for corporate legal departments, I have found that one qualification top management often insists on in hiring a general counsel is prior general counsel experience — preferably in a company of comparable size in their industry.

This requirement makes sense. Hiring a GC from the same industry means the candidate is accustomed to handling problems similar to those he will soon face in the new company. It reduces the GC’s learning curve and minimizes the risk of a failed hire.

Of course, there are many other qualities management typically seeks in their next general counsel — including business judgment, presence, ability to manage the inside and outside legal team, communication skills and corporate expertise, among others.

But given the desire to hire a person with general counsel experience, where does that leave the deputy GC hoping to ascend to the top spot or the GC of a subsidiary seeking a promotion to lead the parent company? Here are some tips for aspiring GCs:

Learn the Business
One of the best things an in-house lawyer can do to get promoted is to learn as much as possible about the business. To become the “business-minded lawyer” that all companies seek, an attorney must be an expert in the company’s technology, processes and products. A lawyer should read his company’s sales brochures. Attend a sales meeting, sales training or sales conference to see how the company’s goods or services are sold. Doing so will provide a deeper understanding of the problems the sales force faces and how they overcome them.

We see the value of deep, hands-on business knowledge every day in the recruiting process as well as in the daily lives of the GCs with whom we interact.

One way to gain in-depth understanding of the business is to see it in operation regularly. Jim Villa, vice president, general counsel and assistant corporate secretary at Washington-based Colonial Parking Inc., spends a full day annually with the parking attendants at one of his garages to keep his hand on the pulse of the business. Eileen Kett, senior vice president and general counsel for Club Med Management Services Inc., is a familiar face at the company’s far-flung properties and knows what goes on on the ground there. This type of immersion will bring any in-house attorney much closer to the business, the people who run it and the problems they confront daily. It will also help forge relationships that assist in-house counsel in understanding the businesspeople’s problems from more than just a legal perspective.

Get Up Close and Personal With the Board
Top management also prefer GC experience because GCs have dealt with boards of directors. So in-house counsel seeking advancement should try to be present at board meetings. One way is to serve in a corporate-secretary capacity; another is to present substantively on issues of importance in their areas of expertise. By doing so, in-house counsel will enhance their understanding of the business and become comfortable in the boardroom. The board will also become comfortable with them, an invaluable asset when seeking to move up.

Sandra Leung, GC of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., said that one way she advanced within the company was by becoming the corporate secretary, despite having no idea what the position entailed and only a litigation background. Ashley Post, “GC Sandra Leung forms connections within the Bristol-Myers Squibb legal department,” InsideCounsel.com, Dec. 1, 2011. If lawyers cannot become the corporate secretary or participate in board proceedings, they should look for ways to accumulate board service outside their company, by serving on nonprofit boards or for-profit boards.

Take Risks
One factor general counsel often cite as key to their success is a willingness to take risks. Teri Plummer McClure, general counsel of United Parcel Service Inc., joined the company as a labor and employment attorney and became the head of that group. Her boss advised her that, to advance, she needed hands-on experience. He offered her a district manager of operations position which required moving her family to Florida; leaving her legal job with no guarantee of return; and directing 4,000 employees in pickup and delivery operations, for which she had no training. She took the position. The operational experience from that role probably made her one of the most business-minded lawyers in the legal department. She observed, “The skills I learned in central Florida, in terms of learning the business from the ground up and understanding how decisions are made on the front lines, are absolutely invaluable to me now.…Had I not taken on that role, I would not even have been considered for general counsel.” Michele Coleman Mayes and Kara Sophia Baysinger, “Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500,” Diversity in the Bar, July/August 2011.