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These days, it seems that almost every lawyer wants to be general counsel. Sure, sometimes a partner at the company’s outside firm is brought inside to head up the legal team. But just as often, GCs have worked their way up within the company. Anyone hoping to be a successful GC must first understand — really understand — that part of the trick is to stop thinking like a lawyer. The job is as much about business as it is the law, maybe even more so. Senior-level corporate officers are judged not only on their legal acumen, but also on their ability to manage others, and to contribute ideas to the business team. You’ve likely spent a lot of time honing your legal expertise. Now it’s time to develop all those other skills. � Think and act like a manager. Model yourself on a boss or some other manager who handles people well no matter what their rank. The bottom line is getting good results — and making sure a staff is motivated to get those results over and again. No model managers in your proximity? Take a course on management or organizational behavior, and take it seriously. The American Bar Association, the American Management Association, and the continuing education divisions of business schools offer classes on leadership, team-building, strategic planning, and organizing. Also look within your own organization for training; some of the larger companies, like Fairfield, Connecticut’s General Electric Co., offer management courses on-site. � Learn to love numbers. Lawyers frequently have a math phobia — that’s why many opted to get a J.D. rather than an MBA in the first place. If this is your secret weakness, take a course on reading financial statements and balance sheets; attend an accounting-for-lawyers class. If you can address the company’s financial picture, you will gain the respect of the business team. � Know thy company. Learn the business inside out — not just the legal issues. Getting ahead in a corporation depends on the business people liking and trusting you. So learn to talk to your clients about their products, deals, advertising, competition, personnel, and financing. Fundamentally, you have to learn how the company operates. And the best way to do this is to get to know not only the people whom you serve directly, but also the others who are working for them. For instance, if you work for a consumer products company that faces product liability issues, it’s critical to know the risk management team, the outside counsel, and the insurers. The more you understand the business stakes and how they are handled, the more insightful your advice will be. � Tolerate risk. This means backing off from perfection and, to a large extent, going against your legal training. It’s a fact of life that business decisions must be made using incomplete information. You have to be able to handle being wrong some of the time. For example, companies frequently are willing to invest in new business ventures with few guarantees in place. So corporate counsel must come up with creative legal advice that, while it may not be the ideal legal path, does accomplish the business goal. In the litigation context, deploy your resources wisely: Know the difference between what is a “bet the company” issue that may require extraordinary measures, and what requires more modest ones. � Find the voids in the company, and fill them. The smart people in a company work in areas that might seem risky or obscure. They try to get a sense of where the business is headed and develop expertise in that area. Just a few years ago, for example, intellectual property lawyers were considered the drones of most companies; now they are the rock stars. One way to develop this savvy is to get to know the people involved in long-term economic planning. In some companies, these experts are part of the business economic group. It is their job to research and forecast the company’s future growth areas. � Be prepared to retool. Work on your expertise, but be aware that you may need to retrain in substantive areas that become important to the company or CEO. In recent years, for instance, human resource issues — such as diversity, staff training, flexible work schedules, and compensation structures — have taken on increasing importance for corporate counsel. � Be very, very friendly. As a company lawyer, it’s inevitable that you will be drawn into the company’s politics. Accept this reality and keep your ears open to what’s going on. This means schmoozing with as many people as possible — from the CEO to the receptionist. Too often, lawyers accustomed to the “professional versus staff” mentality of law firms will talk only to those of equal or greater rank. Big mistake. You can learn a lot about the issues facing a company by hanging out with the sales staff, the factory workers, and others in the trenches. Legendary CEO Jack Welch of GE, for instance, is known for his ability to talk to anybody about any issue. The capacity to “work down” as well as “work up” an organization is worth developing. That said, the GC serves, of course, primarily at the pleasure of the chief executive officer. The relationship between the two is highly personal. More often than not, the GC’s career rises and falls with both the moods and successes of the CEO. Next to the CEO, the general counsel is a key adviser to the board. So make sure you know the CEO’s and the board’s priorities. Being the best lawyer at the company does not mean you will get the GC spot. And never count on the system to get you there. But also ask yourself whether the top job is really what you want. For those who want to only practice law, the GC post can be terribly frustrating. There are many good alternatives to being the top legal officer, including heading substantive areas such as litigation, antitrust, marketing, or acting as counsel to an entire operating group (mini-general counsel). Remember, too, that lawyers make attractive candidates for spots beyond the legal department, such as chief privacy officer, chief information officer, chief compliance officer, and head of human resources. More than ever, company lawyers’ career paths are wide open. Being general counsel is not the be-all and end-all. Meyer Haberman is a founder of New York’s Interquest, Inc., a legal search firm that specializes in senior-level corporate counsel. His email address is [email protected]

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