Throughout 2014, I sat down with 10 fascinating individuals who also happen to be successful legal department leaders. From a former Dallas Cowboys football player to a former 2nd Lieutenant in the US Marine Corp with several tours under his belt to a former X-ray technician-turned-options trader—each of our interviewees had a unique, and often surprising, story to tell.
Although this is a very diverse group of individuals, they all have at least one thing in common: They are now accomplished lawyers serving as leaders in their legal departments and mentors to the young lawyers and business people around them.
In addition to telling the unique story of each GC featured in our Counsel Q&As, we like to relay advice from our profiled guests for achieving similar success.
In each interview, I ask the question: What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be the GC of a company someday? And while several themes were common—learn how to read financial statements and don’t get a reputation for saying “no”—each of the lawyers offered a unique piece of advice from their own experiences.
Here are highlights from what our 2014 Evers eNews profiled GCs had to say:
1. Build relationships with business partners.
“Focus on building key relationships with business partners. Ensure that you’re developing relationships with business partners such that they view you as a counselor and appreciate you for what you bring to the table. Be a problem solver. Tailor advice so you aren’t just outlining risks, but also solutions.”
— Rich Konrath, GC of CNH Industrial, North America
2. Understand the language of business.
“It is important if you want to work in-house and become a GC to understand the language of business. The business comes first. You have to be able to understand the issues being discussed and understand that language.”
— Alex Green, GC of CareerBuilder
3. Learn accounting and finance.
“Much of the advice I am asked to provide is advice about decisions the company is making specifically because of financial circumstances. If you can’t understand balance sheets and how to read them, you can’t give good advice to the company.”
— Bill Weber, GC of Cbeyond
4. Have a passion for your work.
“First, for anybody doing anything, you’ve got to have passion for what you’re doing. My former CEO said, ‘If you aren’t having fun, what are you doing?’ You won’t be good at it. Find that one thing in life that you love, and whatever it is, do it. Don’t focus on titles and pay. Focus on taking pride in what you do, enjoying what you do and doing the best job you can do. Once you get those under your belt, the rest will follow.”
— Curt Kramer, Associate GC of Navistar
5. Be direct and articulate.
— Anne Fitzgerald, Chief Legal Officer of Cineplex
6. Apply legal skills to business strategy.
“Being a good lawyer is a good start. But if you really want to be effective as an in-house business attorney, you have to take the time to understand business strategy. Then you can apply your legal skill set to support that strategy. That makes you effective and makes the business leaders trust you as a counselor and adviser because you understand what they’re trying to achieve.”
— Joe Perkins, Deputy GC of Cummins
7. Hone your specialty in private practice.
“Start at a law firm and become an expert at whatever area of practice you’re most interested in. Specialists are very valued in-house. Once in-house, young lawyers can remain in the specialty and rise to senior roles or they can broaden into different areas and pick up a range of skill sets, if they aspire to become a general counsel.”
— Wendy Hufford, Deputy GC of ITT Corp.
8. Understand your personal strengths and weaknesses.
“That’s where mentors and leadership development and training come in. You have to be realistically self-aware. Take stock of your strengths and where you might have weaknesses. The feedback you get and the feedback you ask for in your current job can be very important in helping you indentify those strengths and weaknesses. Then take concrete steps to build on strengths and to address those weaknesses.”
— Rich Veys, GC of Society of Actuaries
9. Don’t be the “no” department.
“When you’re in-house, you have to wear a business hat at the same time as your legal hat. You have to look at the big picture and find risk-minimizing solutions rather than completely risk-avoiding answers. You don’t want to be the department of “no.” What executive management wants is to find a workable solution.”
— Christine Carsen, GC of Mattershight
10. Exercise superior judgment.
“Great in-house lawyers also need to be able to exercise superior judgment in a very compressed time frame with a limited set of facts. Not every judgment call you make has to be right, but you need to make the right calls consistently on the big strategic choices. How well you are able to do that depends on your ability to scan the horizon and ask the right questions.”
— Pedro DeJesus, GC of Tampico Beverages