For many lawyers, working in a legal department is a career aspiration. Being a part of the business, helping a company achieve its goals and focusing on a single client are recurring themes general counsel express when discussing their love for their work.
The path to the GC chair may look different for every legal department leader, but the attributes most GCs bring to the table are similar. They all possess a certain skillset, range of experience and focused determination.
Each year, Evers Legal interviews some of the most respected general counsel in the country to discuss their impressive legal careers. We conclude each of these interviews by asking them: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to be a GC someday?
Here’s a roundup of the suggestions our 2022 GC profile participants had that could help future in-house counsel land those highly sought-after positions.
1. Prioritize relationship-building early and often throughout your career.
Relationship building is key, says Dorothy Capers, senior vice president and general counsel at Xylem. “You never know when you will have to work with someone you have engaged with in some way. I have horror stories about working with people in court who didn’t treat me kindly. But over the years, I have learned to take those experiences and make them positive.
“You want people to say, ‘I worked with her; she’s smart, collaborative and easy to work with.’ You want someone to tell your story before you can tell it. That comes from the way you show up and engage in your work. You want your reputation to precede you. That’s really important with a GC role.
“I would also say to learn a lot across many functional areas. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert but should expand your legal knowledge as much as you can. Learn enough to be dangerous! You should know enough to say, ‘That doesn’t sound right. I may not know the answer, but I know someone who does.’
“The ‘general’ in general counsel is so valid. You need to have a general sense of a lot of topics and areas of law. You have to advise the board, the executive team and your team. And you need to be able to have enough expansive knowledge, common sense and experience to do that.”
2. Get law firm experience to build the strong foundation needed for the demands of in-house work.
Sherri Morissette, general counsel at National Dentex, says she has noticed recently that people are coming out of law school and going straight in-house. “They don’t want to work for a law firm. They have a negative image of it. But law firm experience is really important for in-house work. In fact, it’s critical. When you’re in-house, you are not learning any new law. When I have a legal question, I call an outside law firm who does this for a living and knows the updated laws.
“My education, my 10 years in law firms, and my understanding of where problems are have allowed me to jump into a job like this and know what to look for. In-house means being a business person, being a manager, being an issue-spotter — but you need that background of learning the legal basics, including how the legal process works, and critical thinking that you get from law firm experience before you land here.”
3. “Good enough” isn’t good enough. Always do great in your current role.
“I would recommend doing your current job really well,” says Deborah Pond, senior vice president and general counsel of Coca-Cola Beverages Florida. “If you do that well, other opportunities will be presented to you. And take offered opportunities to learn the next thing, even if it’s not a promotion and may not appear to be a direct path to where you think you want to go.
“You might change your mind as you have new experiences. And being knowledgeable and excellent at a broad base of matters will give you more options over time.”
4. Be patient and willing to explore unexpected paths in your career.
There are a lot of different paths people take to land in this seat, says Matt Broad, senior vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer at Darden Restaurants Inc. “There isn’t one way to do this. It’s important to be patient and not underestimate the importance that years of experience brings. The path in front of you might not be obvious.
“A willingness to take an indirect route to stretch and take a position that is uncomfortable proves you’re a lifelong learner and problem solver, which are important traits for being a GC.”