Any one lawyer’s law career is as unique as a fingerprint. Many start off in a law firm or in government, while others may land in any number of other positions as a first-time lawyer.
Regardless of where a lawyer launches their career, the path they pave to their desired role is unique. But there are common themes among the attributes it takes to become a leader in the legal profession — particularly, within a law department.
Each year, Evers Legal interviews some of the most respected general counsel in the country to discuss their impressive legal careers and their ascension to the top. At the end of each interview, I ask 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 2023 GC profile participants had that could help a lawyer today land that coveted law department position.
1. Expose yourself to as many areas of law as you can.
Jennifer Baumann, General Counsel at Hallstar
My biggest piece of advice is to get the broadest exposure to projects and areas of law as possible. Increase the breadth of skills as much as you can. In an in-house role, especially at a smaller company, you need to be a generalist. Increase your capacity to learn.
It’s not easy. You have to be intentional about it. Talk to the partner you don’t directly report to, take on a pro bono project or join the board of a nonprofit. These are all great learning experiences.
2. Identify an industry or company that really interests you and seek out a role within it.
Roger O’Sullivan, General Counsel, Secretary and Compliance Officer at CDx Diagnostics
Be genuinely interested in what the company you work for is doing. There are a lot of small companies and entrepreneurs that need lawyers. Find a business you like and go after one of the small-company GC roles. When your interest is genuinely there, you start diving down deeper and throwing yourself into the work. It is genuinely a lot of fun.
3. Do it for yourself — not anyone else — and put in the hard work to rise to the top.
Virginia (Ginny) Johnson, Chief Legal Officer at Aspen Aerogels
“To thine own self be true.” Essentially, know what you want to do. Don’t go into law for the money or because someone else expects it of you. You have to want to do it for yourself. There has to be something about it that drives your passion. Otherwise, you won’t be able to put in the hours and still find happiness.
Also, to quote my favorite AC/DC song, “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Basically, it’s going to take you awhile. You have to grind it out. You need to work hard, and have a strong mindset and a lot of grit.
4. Do the “extras,” build relationships and stay calm.
Eleanor Cabrere, SVP, GC and Corporate Secretary at Navistar
Do the extras. To be an effective GC, you need to know a little about a lot and be comfortable with providing counsel without always having full information. You need broad experience. That means you must get out of your comfort zone and expand your ability to think in different ways.
Build internal relationships. The reason I’ve stayed at Navistar so long is the people. I love the company and its people. Building relationships is very important and it continues to help me be effective today.
Stay calm. Most of the time, most of what we deal with is not “life or death”— although it may seem like it is in the moment. Put circumstances in their proper perspective and be the voice of calm, reason and integrity.