A Letter to the C-Suite: What to Do When You Need to Fill a Gap on Your Legal Team
Decision-makers have traditionally relied on short-term options that are less than ideal to keep things moving while the hiring process runs its course. But you might have more options than you think.
By Deb Ben-Canaan and Casey Feldman|July 12, 2018 at 12:45 PM
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It’s happened. Your worst nightmare. Your general counsel or a senior lawyer is gone—maybe they have quit, retired or been fired; either way, you now have a hole you need to fill and no successor. You immediately engage your trusted legal search firm to find a permanent replacement. But what are you to do in the meantime? You have important legal matters that need to be handled now and no one to guide the way.
Decision-makers have traditionally relied on short-term options that are less than ideal to keep things moving while the hiring process runs its course. But you might have more options than you think. Here are four common solutions to the problem and one you likely haven’t considered.
Lean on Outside Counsel
Chances are you are already working with outside counsel to support specific matters or even day-to-day workload. Since you already have an established relationship with a firm, these lawyers will already have an understanding of your procedures and practices and will be able to keep things moving with minimal disruption while you search for a replacement. As an added bonus, you will have access to multiple attorneys with varying degrees of expertise to cover a wide range of matters that may arise.
Though this might seem like an easy option, it has its downsides. The attorneys you are leaning on at the firm are most likely not dedicated to just your organization and you may not have a choice in who is assigned to work with you. Their time will also come with a high price tag depending on their hourly billing rates, making this the most expensive option.
Use a Law Firm Secondment
If you would prefer more on-site support but still want to lean on your law firm, an alternative solution would be to bring one of their lawyers into your department on a daily basis for an extended period of time. Again, in this scenario, you will reap the benefits of the pre-existing relationship you have with this law firm, and having someone in the office full time will benefit the whole legal team. This integration will also give you the opportunity to vet the secondee to see if he or she has the potential to be considered for your candidate shortlist.
This option also comes with a high price tag, and you most likely will not have much say in the attorney seconded to your team. In the event he or she is not a good fit, you may have to power through having an interim legal leader that doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the department or best fit your needs until you find an appropriate replacement.
Promote an Internal Person in the Interim
The most cost-effective option would be to promote an existing internal employee to serve on an interim basis. Tapping an internal person is an easier transition because he or she would already have the institutional knowledge that is vital to understanding the big picture of your organization. While this would not be an immediate promotion for the chosen attorney, it would be an opportunity for him or her to demonstrate his or her abilities.
However, you run the risk of selecting someone who does not have the necessary level of experience or temperament for the job. If the internal person is not ultimately promoted, you are likely to find yourself on yet another search to fill his or her role not long after the new general counsel arrives.
Doing nothing shouldn’t be your first choice, but it is an option. There is no immediate monetary cost to leaving your team without a leader. However, your team may become overworked or stressed because of the uncertainty and lack of internal direction, leading to more departures and searches. You may also feel added pressure to fill the role more quickly, which could rush your search and result in a less than optimal final selection.
Hire a Consultant
Hiring an interim consultant through a legal search firm is a less common option that was once stigmatized by the legal community, but more and more companies are utilizing it as a creative and valuable course of action. Often, these consultants are former law firm partners or GCs who can provide high-quality work on-site. The cost of bringing in a consultant is typically much lower than that of working with outside counsel, and it allows for collaboration with outside counsel in the same way you have always used them.
This option opens up an entirely new pool of candidates with top-notch credentials—and there is a good chance the firm you are working with for your permanent search can help you find the right consultant. You will have the opportunity to conduct in-depth interviews and screen potential candidates to ensure you are getting the best personality fit and the most experienced candidate for the role. You may even identify a potential successor who can prove him or herself during this test run in the role.
As with any new employee, a consultant would require some time to get up to speed. However, chances are that the interim consultant would have previous experience as a general counsel and would be able to smoothly and quickly assume the role. This method does require a short startup timeline to complete interviews and on-boarding, but corporations are increasingly seeing it pay off in the long run.
While the immediate realization that you have a gap in your leadership team may feel overwhelming, the reality is that you have several options to fill the hole while you conduct a search for a permanent placement. Your legal search firm can be great resources in your time of need. Turn to them to explore your immediate options and find the solution that fits your organization and legal department best.
Deborah Ben-Canaan is a partner and the leader of the Washington, D.C., in-house practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa. In her more than 17 years as an executive search consultant, Ben-Canaan has placed more than 700 senior-level legal leaders in corporate legal departments across the U.S. and assisted her U.S. clients in making strategic placements overseas with the support of Major Lindsey’s EMEA and APAC teams.
Casey Feldman is a managing director in the solutions practice group at Major Lindsey. He specializes in supporting in-house legal departments and law firms by providing specialized legal and compliance professionals for consulting, contract and permanent positions.
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