General counsel (GCs) have many internal clients, but none are more important than the members of the executive team, or C-suite. Increasingly, the relationship between the two is changing. More and more GCs are taking on a role beyond that of a lawyer, who is there to help deal with legal issues and nothing more. While they still bring their legal expertise to bear, some are also taking a more regular or even permanent seat at the top table, acting as a strategic adviser and trusted business partner to support executive decision-making.
Many businesses are seeing the benefits of having their GCs become effective and valued members of the C-suite, but for others there is still further to go to change the dynamic.
Below are five things GCs can do to move beyond being merely the “lawyer in the room” and become seen as an integral part of the senior leadership team.
|No. 1: Be commercially-minded|
||No. 2: Build relationships with the C-suite|
|No. 3: Speak their language|
||No. 4: Be upfront|
|No. 5: Be a problem-solver|
No. 1: Be commercially-minded
It can be easy for lawyers to focus on the law, rather than thinking about how that plays out in a commercial context, but the best GCs have a broader, more pragmatic perspective.
In fact, providing commercial legal advice is the top priority for leaders of UK in-house legal departments, according to the 2023 Thomson Reuters State of the Corporate Legal Department report. When legal advice is given with a commercial hat on, it’s more useful to the business and demonstrates the value that the GC and the wider legal department can deliver.
Being commercially-minded requires deep knowledge of the business itself, and the wider market and conditions in which it is operating. That means understanding how your company makes money and what its financial position is; knowing its products and services in detail; being aware of who its important customers, suppliers, and competitors are; and, above all, being familiar with its business plans and strategy.
Get up to speed by reading company strategy documents, business plans and board presentations. Look at company press releases, public filings, and analyst reports, plus the public filings of your company’s main competitors and relevant industry publications for more depth and insight. Ask for demos of company products and services.
No. 2: Build relationships with the C-suite
In addition, ask your C-suite colleagues for their take on the marketplace, competitors, company strategy, etc. Spend some time with the CFO to understand recent financial statements and hear their thoughts about how the company is situated financially.
If the C-suite sees that you know the company’s business, they will be more likely to include you in discussions about more than just legal issues.
What’s more, if these conversations help them to get to know you as a person, and what you’re like to work with, your relationships with them should get stronger and stronger. And when they ask you for your advice, be responsive and collaborative.
No. 3: Speak their language
Using legalese doesn’t work in the business world, so talking like a lawyer isn’t the best way to get your voice heard. Getting your point across is not just about what you say, but how you say it, so think about how you are communicating. Often, the best lawyers don’t actually sound like lawyers.
Remember that the C-Suite doesn’t really care about legal issues – they care about business issues. So, their tolerance level and attention span for whatever nuanced legal points you are writing or talking about are low. Keep it simple and concise. Lose the legal jargon and just get straight to the point, in plain English.
No. 4: Be upfront
The C-suite needs to know that you will neither exaggerate nor play things down. Your place in the C-suite constellation is “truth-giver;” no executive team can make good decisions about anything, let alone legal issues, unless they know the plain truth. Do not try to slant the facts to drive the executive team to the action you want them to take.
Give them answers upfront. If there are options, outline them, listing the alternatives and their merits and potential risks. Then give them your recommendation on what to do and why. If they disagree with your advice, that’s fine. But, failing to provide an answer or not telling the C-Suite what you think is a missed opportunity which could have consequences for the business (and for you).
If you want to be part of the team, give the C-Suite the even-handed and complete information it needs to make the hard decisions. They will recognize that you are doing so and appreciate it.
No. 5: Be a problem-solver
People love it when you make their lives easier. Many legal departments are on a mission to show the business at large that they are an enabler, not a barrier to getting things done.
There may be very good legal reasons why something cannot or should not happen, and while it’s not a GC’s job to have all the answers, the C-Suite will appreciate it if you can help them find a solution. By all means say no if it needs to be said – but think hard about how obstacles can be overcome and whether there’s some way that a ‘no’ can become a ‘yes’.
That shows more than legal acumen, it shows good judgment and a can-do attitude which should elevate a GC from being seen as the legal brain to being viewed as a trusted partner.
To help you work out whether an action is possible and if not, what the potential solutions are, it can help to have a philosophy around how you approach challenging conundrums. Have a short mental checklist that could include:
- Do I need to have a position immediately, or do I have time to think about it?
- Do I know all the facts, and am I making any assumptions?
- What information am I missing and where do I get it?
- Who else needs to be involved in making this decision?
- What is the company’s risk tolerance and how will this fit in?
- What are the upsides and what are the downsides?
- Who is going to be affected by this (positively and negatively)?
- Are there any consequences that we haven’t foreseen?
- Am I being consistent?
- What is the right thing to do?
Being a general counsel is a tough job, but it can also be an extremely rewarding one – especially when your colleagues in the C-suite see you as a peer. To get there, focus on what drives good business behaviours, not just on what makes good legal practice. The latter is clearly important, but to be part of the C-Suite you need to go above and beyond. Start thinking and acting like a business person with legal expertise and not a lawyer who works for a business.
Fortunately, GCs with access to Practical Law have a wealth of legal resources designed to help them do just that.