Maureen Brandage of Chubb.

Today’s general counsel needs to move beyond the legal realm to think more strategically and become part of the business, even if it means she has to “speak out and sharpen her elbows,” according to Maureen Brundage, former general counsel of the insurer The Chubb Corp.

Brundage spoke as part of a recent webinar on the evolving role of the GC and the impact of this evolution on compensation for legal department leaders. The session was sponsored by Equilar Inc., the provider of board intelligence services, and BarkerGilmore, the legal and compliance executive search consultants. Brundage is a senior advisor at the latter firm.

A good GC will sit down with the CFO, attend key business meetings, study the same publications that the business executives read, visit operations in the field and generally find ways to see the risks involved in the business firsthand, Brundage explained. She said the GC has a critical obligation to find out how and where a company makes its money and where it might grow.

“You can’t wait till your next general counsel job to get a seat at the table,” she advised. “You need to get it from the get-go to enable you to do your job better. And you will be compensated accordingly.”

Brundage said that, as GC and chief compliance officer at Chubb, she not only attended board meetings but also often presented, participated and engaged in them. “It’s important to have strong relationships with board members both inside and outside the meetings,” she noted.

She also stressed the importance of the general counsel as a protector of an ethical corporate culture. Recent corporate scandals, she said, showed there were problems in those companies’ cultures.

“Where was the general counsel, and why didn’t the GC ring the alarm bell on these issues?” Brundage asked.

Another webinar panelist, John Gilmore, managing partner at BarkerGilmore, said that a GC who can think strategically and engage with business and board is highly desirable to CEOs. “And general counsel who are more strategic are paid more,” he said, referring to a recent GC compensation report from Equilar and BarkerGilmore.

But Gilmore said the No. 1 factor that CEOs and boards look for in a GC is someone with industry experience. “That’s their sweet tooth,” he said.

That is especially true in highly regulated industries, like finance, insurance, energy and healthcare, he said, adding, “It is rare to see someone go from, say, a consumer products company to an oil company.”

He said larger companies also often want to hire a GC who has experience running similar size law departments and managing legal matters of similar scope, such as a billion-dollar acquisition.

And all companies, regardless of size, want someone with legal and business acumen, emotional judgment and “gravitas,” he explained. The three key words for CEOs, Gilmore said, are “high emotional intelligence,” which means they can handle adversity, build trustworthy relationships and make sound decisions under stress.

The general counsel’s role has “grown beyond just being caretaker of the law department,” Gilmore said.