As the newly-hired head of legal of your employer‘s legal department or General Counsel (GC), it’s important to properly set expectations with leadership and get alignment on goals and priorities.
The job of GC (especially at hyper-growth organizations) is interesting, fast-paced, and not for the faint of heart.
In your role as the head of the legal department, you are the go-to person for everything from employment issues to sales contracts and liability questions. Depending on your previous experience, you'll likely have to address issues you’ve never addressed before—even if you’ve been a practicing lawyer for many years. You’re going to need to expand your expertise to find answers in areas with which you’re barely familiar and become responsible for bringing in new hires and building your legal team from scratch. This can be fun!
To make your GC transition easier, we've enlisted the experts. At a recent event by TechGC, the preeminent GC community for high-growth companies and venture funds, we co-hosted a virtual panel where panelists and TechGC members Shelley Hall, SVP and GC at NetBrain Technologies, and Justin Doolittle, VP and GC at Qumulo shared lessons and practical advice from their first-hand experiences.
A Day in the Life of a General Counsel
As a GC, you’re not just a legal advisor to the company. Yes, you come to the table with legal expertise, but your opinions and insights are integral to the execution of a company’s mission and strategy.
Unlike professional individuals in other departments, your day-to-day job as a GC involves all areas of the company—and sometimes outside of it, too—solving legal issues and avoiding disasters. For instance, you’ll be responsible, either alone or alongside your team, for handling commercial transactions, employment issues, equity administration, intellectual property management, and other random legal crises throughout the company that come your way—that’s the general part of being a GC. Yes, we put out fires.
Often, I have found that GCs with a trusted relationship with their leaders also serve as a key stakeholder in reviewing in advance all messaging that goes out to employees, the board, or strategic partners.
If you’re just entering GC territory, Hall and Doolittle discuss the importance of flexibility and openness in a GC. Below is a 10-item General Counsel checklist Hall and Doolittle shared during 2022's TechGC event for every aspiring GC dedicated to doing their best.
1. Establish Yourself as the Go-To Expert
Start strong. Secure early wins. The legal and logistical needs of every company differ depending on its industry and the products and services it offers. Doolittle advises that you jump in and figure out as much as possible about your current employer. “Within reason, aim to do more than they expect, faster than they expect you to,” Doolittle said.
At the beginning, it’s important to outsource internal business processes as little as possible. By acquiring as much knowledge as possible of business operations, you’re establishing yourself as the glue that connects all other functions to focus on a single goal where each function may be focused on their specific KPIs.
However, don’t frame yourself as having all the answers. Your colleagues don’t expect you to know everything. You build trust by being the person willing to look for the answers and coming back to the table with solutions.
Understand everyone’s goals and how their success is measured. Sit down with managers of various departments and levels and come to understand their respective KPIs. I suggest specifically asking each leader: “How do you define success for a GC and me generally?” Their answer to this question is telling.
2. Understand the Products on a Deep Level
Dedicate time to learn about the technical details of the products and services your company offers, especially parts that have practical legal implications. In addition to understanding the bigger picture, this knowledge will help you later when it comes to negotiating commercial contracts, providing product counsel, and offering strategic advice generally.
Here are some ways to achieve this knowledge:
- Receive a product demo or watching recordings of demos
- Listen to recording of support conversations
- Attend product review and roadmap meetings
- Get access to a demo or sandbox account if your company offers software and tinker with the software
3. Know the Company’s Growth Strategy
For growth-stage companies, growth comes first. Period.
Concentrate the majority of your effort on learning about the company’s sales, products, customer use cases, and revenue plans. At the top of your list as the new GC should be your ability to harness credibility by showcasing your value to the company’s bottom line and revenue generation.
Doolittle and Hall also recommend making yourself familiar with the company’s risk tolerance and overall risk profile. When drafting and negotiating contracts, knowing where to compromise and where to double down your persuasion efforts can have a major effect on the company’s performance.
When asked about the most helpful thing they did to become a reliable partner to the business, Doolittle replied with:
I sat through our Sales Boot camp program, I learned the product and value prop and then used that information to help find creative solutions to customer objections that the sales teams faced. I then applied the same tactic to other departments.
4. Get in Front of Teams and Executives
Hall reiterates that new GCs should ask to be included in meetings and negotiations rather than waiting for results and instructions from behind a desk. Be proactive. Take every opportunity to get in front of teams and executives at the company and showcase your leadership and problem-solving skills.
Being present will allow you the unique opportunity to listen to how executives and managers speak with their teams, departments, and outside counsels. Do your best to analyze their speech and mimic it. Notice how the terminology and tone change depending on the topic and who they’re talking to. Cater your speech pattern and style to different target audiences. This alone can boost the trustworthiness and confidence they have in your abilities to lead the legal department.
5. Connect With Outside Counsel
Your organization is likely working with outside counsel to handle their legal issues. Build a relationship with your company’s existing outside legal counsel. Learn how they manage things and offer your input and insights to gain exposure and credibility; make sure they see you as the conduit to the company.
Make the most out of meet-and-greet discussions to introduce yourself to the company’s current outside counsel. Ask how the company has typically handled consents and contracts, shareholder meetings, and board communications. Hall notes:
Outside counsel needs to fill you in on that stuff anyway, so you can do some brain-picking while you’re at it. I also asked law firm friends of mine to give me some tips for free. They’ll be excited at the possibility that you might give them work and will be happy to give some pointers.
Harnessing the knowledge of how the company managed legal issues before you came along allows you to find the right balance between relying on outside counsel and enriching your expertise in-house. Your priority, above all else, should be to get the work done accurately and efficiently. If you don’t think you and your legal team are capable of handling a specific matter, then it needs to go to outside counsel. However, this is still a learning opportunity.
Avoid asking for deliverables with limited insights. Under the “why” behind the advice. For example, ask instead about the risks and concerns they considered, why they used a particular structure, and whether there were other avenues that would have worked as well.
Budget spent on outside counsel should be leveraged as an investment in your professional development. It could be an opportunity to forgo or reduce outsourcing legal work the next time around or long-term.
6. Communicate Expectations Upfront
Doolittle and Hall also discussed the need to establish realistic expectations and communicate achievable goals and milestones. Doolittle notes that, more often than not, startups have way more work to get done than there is time and resources to accomplish. Yes, they should’ve hired you at least 12 months prior.
In such hectic environments, open communication is key.
Being responsive and securing early wins helps you build your internal brand. There are a lot of challenges and resource constraints you face in the legal department, but spending headspace and energy to overcome a misperception that you’re a “business blocker” should not be one of them.
Hall says, "People often feel legal is a black hole. I have found that responding to say you’re on it and telling them how you’re slotting a request into your priorities helps. They’ll still want it yesterday, but at least you’ve responded."
7. Plant the Seed to Grow Your Team
Depending on the size and age of the company, you might have to start working on your own in the legal department. Start a plan to make a business case for an additional headcount early on.
Both Doolittle and Hall strongly advise you to hire someone experienced as soon as possible and when you have the budget to do so. The profile of your first hire will vary based on your specific needs, but it’s essential to hire someone that takes tasks off your plate (not add to it).
Avoid waiting until the company is big and the work piles up before requesting to hire. This is a common issue at startups that underestimate the legal work that they have.
It takes time to allocate resources and budget to allow the hiring of one or more employees. Additionally, it’ll take time for the new hires to onboard, get used to the company, and become comfortable in the environment. Estimate that it will take at least 60 days for a new hire to be fully ramped.
8. Embrace Every Learning Opportunity
The legal landscape is constantly changing and evolving. Becoming a GC entails continuous learning, keeping up with the latest trends, laws, and regulations, as well as the cutting edge tech that helps you scale the legal function, improve collaboration, accelerate contracting, and track and report on key metrics.
On the panel, Hall notes that learning isn’t limited to seminars, workshops, and boot camps. So many law firms publish extensive blog posts providing valuable advice and updates to laws and regulations. Sometimes, all you need is a simple Google search of a new concept or an issue you’re facing to get expert advice and solutions. Or, join a quality GC community like TechGC to get practical insights and stay up to date on what your peers are doing.
Once you have a good handle on the general issues your company faces, you can engage with outside firms and counsels to fill in the blanks and optimize operations. Utilizing the internet as needed is a cost-effective approach for staying up to date.
9. Learn About the Company’s Corporate Secretary Needs
Many companies merge the roles of a GC and a corporate secretary into one. If that’s one of the roles expected of you, talk to the company’s current outside counsel as the new corporate secretary. Arrange and attend discussions to understand how the company typically handles outside work and relations.
With limited board access capabilities, it may be challenging to undertake your role without the usual privileges of a corporate secretary. Having a seat at the table with the board enables you to be a more effective GC for the company.
10. Become an Industry Expert; Not Just a Product Expert
The product your company is providing is only a part of the whole picture. While it’s important to understand the ins and outs of your company’s product, you also need to have in-depth knowledge of the industry as a whole.
During your first few weeks as GC, start growing your knowledge and expertise in the industry’s competitive landscape, business jargon, company metrics, and how to manage and read a financial statement.
Researching on your own by reading recent industry reports and staying on top of the latest news and evolution is great, but don’t forget that you’re not alone in this. Every department in the company is an expert on one or more facets of the industry and there are many fantastic GC and in-house counsel groups you can join to help you.
The General Counsel Playbook
There’s always room for improvement when it comes to being a GC in a startup or an established company. Take a look inside the GC Playbook, crafted by Jessica Nguyen, Chief Legal Officer at Lexion. There, you can find in-depth tips on how to start and love your new job as an in-house attorney.