Hiring A General Counsel

By: Vanessa Vidal

The economy, globalization, mergers, compliance concerns and business competition have all influenced the way the general counsel legal function is seen and used. Today, CEOs are looking to their general counsel as both business and legal advisors who must consider all of the issues that a company faces.  In addition to being a strategic business partner and a legal advisor, the general counsel must also lead, organize, manage, train, and educate.

The increased complexity of the general counsel role has made filling these vacancies more challenging than ever.  Even the most experienced CEOs and human resource professionals can find it difficult to effectively assess candidates and identify the more subtle skills required for this position.  Here are five suggestions for companies to consider when hiring a general counsel:

1.    Look Inside First

The most effective way to replace a departing general counsel is to elevate a candidate from a company’s existing legal department.  Increasingly, general counsels are becoming responsible for creating succession plans, serving as mentors and developing internal talent.  These efforts often result in strong internal candidates being available for the general counsel position.

While internal candidates should be a part of every company’s long-term succession planning process, not every company can support this type of activity.  This process typically requires that a company already have a general counsel in place, as well as enough internal attorneys with the experience and competencies required to develop as general counsel candidates.  In other words, succession planning works best in larger legal departments.  Where a company seeks its first general counsel or does not have the bandwidth to grow internal candidates, outside recruiting becomes the obvious method of sourcing general counsel candidates.

2.  Prioritize Core Competencies

The greatest barrier to successfully hiring a general counsel comes from improper management of expectations.  In general, companies that are looking to hire their first general counsel tend to look for the “perfect” candidate rather than the “right” candidate.  While these two categories do not have to be mutually exclusive, the approach used for each can yield very different results.  The real problem lies in burdening the “perfect” candidate description with a slate of requirements that are generally unnecessary and unrealistic, rather than identifying and prioritizing core competencies required for the role as they relate specifically to the company.

Most companies would be thrilled to hire the general counsel of a major public company with all of the sophistication and hauteur that someone in this position would bring.  However, not only is this exclusive candidate pool extremely small, but also most companies don’t have the wherewithal to recruit these types of candidates.  Most importantly, the great majority of companies don’t need a general counsel from this candidate pool.  The biggest challenge facing these recruiting companies is to set appropriate requirements and expectations for its general counsel candidates.  While these requirements can be exacting, decision makers need to be realistic about identifying competencies that are truly important and relevant to the role in their company.

Being realistic at the outset of the search, and setting meaningful priorities and requirements will result in generating a strong pool of candidates from which one candidate will make an excellent fit.  Companies who stay focused on long wish lists will not only narrow the candidate pool unnecessarily, but will also risk keeping a critical position open for several month, or make a hire who seems perfect on paper but who will fail because of cultural fit issues.

Some of the competencies that companies should consider when searching for a general counsel include:

  • Combining strong technical skills, sharp intellect, and experience to resolve difficult, complex legal and business problems.
  • Being able to effectively manage diverse personalities and relationships, internally and externally.
  • Thinking outside of the box, and being able to come up with new and creative ideas in business and legal matters.
  • Leading others by communicating a compelling vision that moves individuals, teams, and the organization to perform at a higher level and embrace change.
  • Seeing the trees in the forest and being able to focus on critical tasks that add value.
  • Communicating effectively at all levels of the organization, in written and verbal communication.
  • Delegating by making individuals accountable, providing feedback, as well as recruiting, mentoring, and growing talent for current and future roles.

To meet the needs of a changing function, companies have to focus on lawyers who are flexible, who offer a broad base of practice, and who want to contribute through productive collaboration. Strong business judgment and the ability to impart immediate trust and legitimacy are also very important qualities.  Finally, a general counsel must know how to deliver a message to people at all levels of the company, must be proactive, possess a strong level of self-awareness, and be driven.

3.  Be Ready To Invest

In conducting a general counsel search, your organization needs to be ready to invest financially, as well as in terms of time and effort.  Since the general counsel will act as the trusted advisor to the CEO, the process will be more successful if those conducting the search involve the CEO early and often.   Rather than only including the CEO in the initial meeting or on the review of the final candidate(s), the CEO should be regularly included in each step of the process.

To recruit the best, even in a down economy, companies also need to be willing to invest financially.  While general counsels make transitions for a variety of reasons that are not always financially related, high performers are usually looking for comparable if not better compensation packages than what is being offered by their current company. Today’s general counsels are compensated at levels similar to other members of the senior management team.  It is not unusual for a general counsel to be one of the top five most highly compensated company executives.

What do the general counsels at the nation’s top companies earn?  Stock options and equity are making a comeback according to to a 2015 Corporate Counsel survey.  General counsels at Fortune 500 companies make:

  • An average salary of $706,453 , up by 0.8 percent.
  • Average bonus plus nonequity incentive compensation: $1,388,878, up by 9.2 percent
  • Average stock option award: $860,055, up by 11.8 percent
  • Average stock award: $2,333,716, up by 49.4 percent

Given the high compensation lawyers at the general counsel level command, it is important for management to accept that it will need to offer a highly competitive compensation package to attract top talent.  Compensation is even more of a factor if the company is in a troubled situation or has other challenges attracting candidates, such as geographical location, specialty area, etc.

4.  Think Outside the Box

Companies that can establish disciplined yet flexible guidelines will be able to recruit outstanding candidate quickly and effectively. Technical skills, good business judgment, management skills, and fit with the organization are all critical.  That said, there are certain areas where a company can show some flexibility and still be able to recruit excellent candidates without having to “settle.”

While companies tend to prefer to hire general counsels that come from their specific industry, some flexibility in this area can be afforded without having to compromise on competencies.  If candidates in a company’s primary industry are in short supply, it may be appropriate to look to related industries for prospects.  For instance, if a company is highly regulated, candidates from other highly regulated sectors can bring the type of experience a company would benefit from.  Conversely, there can also be crossovers between industries that are not highly regulated, such as the consumer or industrial sector.  While this might not apply to companies in certain industries that require industry-specific experience because of the specific regulatory nature or the complexity of the sector, such as healthcare or financial services, most other companies can benefit from considering candidates in crossover industries.

5.  Consider Using Legal Recruiters

Today’s general counsel is a critical member of a corporation’s senior leadership – an accomplished legal professional who will be required to provide top-flight legal and business advice.  Evaluating and quantifying the skills required when assessing candidates for general counsel positions can be challenging, even for the most experienced CEOs.  Conducting a search for a general counsel is not only complex and challenging, but it is also a time consuming and costly process that a company cannot afford to miss.  As a result, an increasing number of companies are turning to professional legal recruiting firms to fill their general counsel positions.

Legal recruiters can advise companies on the type of person and salary required to attract top talent, as well as devise strategies to recruit the right individual in accordance with the company’s needs and requirements.   Professional legal recruiting firms maintain a constant stream of qualified candidates and potential job seekers.  They are intimately connected with the legal community in both law firms and corporations.  As a result, they can offer companies the type of qualified candidates they would not be able to find on their own through online or newspaper ads, alumni associations, applicant databases, job boards or other familiar sources of people.   Most legal recruiters are also former attorneys.  As a result, these legal recruiters tend to be better positioned than laypersons to evaluate another attorney’s skills and aptitude, and identify “great” from merely “good” attorneys.  In other words, legal recruiting firms are designed to deliver faster and better results, saving a company both time and money.

Written on: 12/02/15 PDF Version