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Q: I am an associate general counsel in a publicly traded company. I was originally trained as a law firm litigator and then moved in house. I transitioned from litigation management to doing commercial work. In my new company, I now do a full range of work, which encompasses multiple practice disciplines. I am considering enrolling in a part-time Master of Business Administration program, as I think this may improve my knowledge of business, which should also improve my business judgment and hopefully make me a better lawyer for my company. Apart from those benefits, I would appreciate your opinion as to whether getting an MBA would also increase my chances of becoming a general counsel some day.

A: In assessing your specific situation, it is important to know how likely it is that you could eventually succeed the incumbent general counsel. Are there other in-house attorneys who are higher on the org chart and thus are more likely successors? Additionally, has someone on the senior management team intimated that obtaining such a degree would make you a better lawyer for the company? Does the current general counsel have an MBA?

I posit those questions as each organization tends to have its own culture, paths to the top, and dynamics, which impact an inquiry of this type. If your path to the GC chair is relatively clear; if you have received strong reviews; if you have good relationships with leaders in the company; if you have a solid understanding of the business of your company; and if it is unlikely that your company could be sold before your opportunity arises, then the MBA is unnecessary, especially if this is a company that you would like to be in long term.

Conversely, if senior executives (including the general counsel) have MBAs and it is clearly valued in the company; if you believe, deep down, that you would benefit by having a more in depth knowledge of business; and if you have the time to devote to this pursuit and will not allow it to affect your performance, then pursuing this degree makes sense.

I would generally note that the value of adding an MBA — especially after one has been practicing for more than 10 years — is marginal. I have placed quite a few generals counsel and can count on one hand the number of times that the search specifications required such a degree or even noted that it would be a plus. Three of the generals counsel I have placed did have an MBA, and this was only cited as a nice feature — but not a determining factor — in one case.

My overarching advice, subject to the type of factors mentioned, above, is to devote the time that you would have otherwise allotted to pursuing the MBA to doing the type of things that will better position you to become a general counsel. These include the following:

Learning more about your business and industry. This can entail going to lunch or otherwise spending more time with “rank and file” business people in the company who can teach you the fundamentals of what really drives your company. Read the business and industry journals they do, go on a few sales calls, sit in a few R&D meetings, and generally begin to live and breathe the business of your company.

Being smart about the type of work you do. Most generals counsel, especially of publicly traded companies, have experience that includes significant transactional, securities, Sarbanes — Oxley and general commercial work. It is essential that you have in-depth experience in those areas. Once that experience exists, it then behooves you to get broad exposure to other areas, such as shareholder relations, working with the board of directors, and developing a working understanding of IP and specific practice areas that are central to your industry. For example, if you worked for a medical device company, it is crucial that you master FDA law.

Network, network, and then network some more. Statistics demonstrate that most persons, including lawyers, find their next job about 75 percent of the time through networking. It thus is essential that you cast your net as wide as possible to be exposed to persons who could hire you, or recommend you for a general counsel spot some day.

Among the things you should do in this regard are: attend industry wide events (and not those just for lawyers) so that a broad range of executives will get to know you; speak at industry events, especially where you can address high level issues that might draw the attention of CEOs and board members; write articles, but make sure that CEOs and board members read those publications (as they are the ones who can hire you); and get to know executives in your company who are one step below the senior management team level, too. One or more of these persons may ascend to the CEO role in your company, which could be crucial to your selection. Similarly, executives at this level, particularly those who are blocked from advancement, may depart for other companies if a CEO spot is offered. As most new CEOs bring in their own general counsel, you just might get a call from one of those persons if he or she lands such a spot in a new company.

Your interest in expending extra effort — whether that entails pursuing that MBA or doing some of the things outlined here — is commendable. Good luck.
Frank M. D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at [email protected]

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