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How to succeed as General Counsel: Advice from real GCs

How to succeed as General Counsel: Advice from real GCs

How to succeed as General Counsel: Advice from real GCs Jen Patterson
Sr. Content Marketing Manager

Culture champion. Risk officer. Strategy leader. Counselor. People developer. These are all wildly different and challenging roles, and they’re also all jobs of General Counsel.

Most attorneys who start down the corporate legal path aim to attain the General Counsel title — and its many and varied responsibilities. Becoming General Counsel is a worthy and often rewarding achievement, but part of finding success in the position is deeply understanding what exactly it entails well before you get there.  

To gain an insider’s perspective, Lexion’s Chief Legal Officer Jessica Nguyen grabbed two of her favorite corporate legal minds who have been there and done that, Noga Rosenthal, Chief Privacy Officer and General Counsel at Ampersand and Jason Weintraub, Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel at Jacuzzi group (sorry, no hot tub discount codes — we asked). This group of legal buffs sat down to chat about the pros and cons of the GC role, what factors helped them succeed, and how they’re continuing to grow their legal careers beyond the GC title. Spoiler alert: They really do like their jobs. 

Whether you’re aspiring to climb the ladder to the GC role or currently serving as General Counsel and looking for a plan of action for success, our panelists of experts have you covered. Here are some highlights of what they shared. 

Who’s a good fit for the General Counsel role?

Finding success in the General Counsel role starts with making sure it’s the right fit for you and your career path. But when we talk about who’s right for the position and who’s not, it’s important to note that all types of people can succeed as a GC (unless you’re not a legal professional — this will make it more challenging). As Nguyen shared,

“It’s similar to whether you prefer working with large organizations or smaller startups — you’ll probably find more success at one than the other depending on your work style. It doesn’t make one wrong or right.” 

So what’s life like as a GC? Rosenthal explained her favorite aspect of the job is that every day is different, “I love tackling employment law one day, and executive concerns the next — it’s never boring and always keeps you on your toes.” Nguyen said that with this excitement does come the challenge of always being on call, “you might get a call at any hour from the CEO or a board member about an immediate crisis, and you have to be available to advise.” Weintraub said the best advice he received from a mentor about taking on the GC role is only to do it when you’re ready — even though it’s high reward, the challenges are significant. 

Our panelists agreed these are some of the top pros and cons to consider when debating whether you’d thrive in — and yes — enjoy the GC position. 

Pros of the GC role

  • Member of the Executive team 
  • Prestige and higher compensation
  • Rewarding work and the opportunity to make a strategic impact
  • Leadership and management opportunities

Cons of the GC role

  • Long hours and high-stress situations
  • Time-sensitive requests with limited information
  • Work-life balance challenges
  • Demands taking a stance and associated risk

Leadership development is essential for thriving as a GC

Law schools don’t teach one of the most critical skills for succeeding as a legal boss. Can we get a partial refund? No, unfortunately, calling your alma mater's Dean to complain won’t help. But the good news is that there are many everyday opportunities to build this essential legal muscle: Leadership. 

And there may be a good reason leadership isn’t often taught in the classroom — it’s a skill best built with practical application. “I always raised my hand for opportunities to lead projects or people,” shared Weintraub, “and I made my path to GC easier by taking on these substantive roles. As GC, knowing at least a little about everything is essential to make connections and gain trust.”

Another great way to build up those blossoming leadership skills? Everyone’s least favorite word: Networking. However, a slight mindset shift can help remove some of the cringe from networking — it’s part of the job. As in, you should do it on company time. All of our panelists agree that while networking helps to boost your leadership skills, it also helps your organization in a meaningful way. Whether meeting people in the industry or expanding your legal connections, having a broader and more diverse network can help you succeed at your job and provide even better support for your company. 

GCs must learn how to manage up

Another “soft” skill with tangible results is managing up. General Counsel is responsible for making the legal department's value visible to the rest of the organization — especially the leadership team. This means tooting your own horn occasionally, but even more importantly, how to talk in numbers. Nguyen explains,

“You have to frame legal’s impact in a way that matters to the business. Instead of sharing that you updated a privacy policy, talk about the results you expect, how you’ll measure it, and the amount of money you expect to save.”

Rosenthal agrees that the GC owns the legal brand, “Ensuring people understand the responsibilities of the role, where you put your resources, and managing up all have a huge impact on the department’s success.”

Departmental visibility is critical, but managing up also includes advocating for yourself and your work, “I’m a zealous advocate for clients, and in the GC role, I had to learn to do that for myself,” explains Weintraub. He added, “Titles matter for your resume, your career growth, and they need to reflect all your work.” Our panelists agreed that having a title that aligns with your work can help you get the job done. Because the General Counsel title implies you’re on the leadership team, people know the buck stops with you.

Listen to advice on being a GC—from actual GCs

Whether or not the General Counsel role is in your future, there are endless ways to find success as a legal professional. And if you’re ready to take on the excitement and challenges of GC, kick off your success by watching the full panel discussion to dive deeper into the topics we discussed and a detailed 90-day plan for winning in the role. 

Watch the webinar here or download Jessica’s GC Playbook


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