Is in-house success all about wisdom and experience, or
can younger lawyers match their more sage counterparts with a
different package of skills? GC investigates whether age is just
a number in the coveted role of General Counsel.
Y O U N G G C S
CEOs are getting younger. Since 1980 the average of the Fortune 100 CEO has dropped from 59 to 56 according to a recent feature on CEO.com. And let’s not forget the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Melissa Mayer – fresh-faced and leading the charge for the under-40s.
What of GCs? Is there a similar trend?
Michael Sachs, a Chicago-based GC recruiter at Major, Lindsay & Africa (and former in-houser) estimates that in the US, lawyers tend to make the move from private practice to in-house at about five to ten years of experience post-law school, putting them in their early 30s by the time they find themselves working in business. According to a 2014 Oxera report commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the average age for UK corporate counsel is 42.
Of course, this tells us nothing about the age or level of experience at which those lawyers can typically expect to reach the level of GC. Is this changing in any way?
Michael thinks not, although he believes that employers are becoming more open to trying new things when it comes to recruiting for the top job. “At the end of the day,” he explains, “they are not going to sit in the decision room and say, well, this person has eight years’ experience and this person has 25. They are going to compare the people, and say: this is what the person with eight years brings and this is what the person with 25 years brings.”
Nevertheless, Michael continues, the bigger the company, the more experienced the general counsel is likely to be. With a board comes responsibility and smaller companies have much more latitude when it comes to hiring.
A splash of cold water
Someone who has been the beneficiary of a mid-sized company’s willingness to invest time, support and trust in a younger head of legal is Simon Haug. He was 29 years old when he first walked through the doors of German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and still in the final stages of his legal clerkship. When after six months the incumbent legal head announced his intention to leave, Simon applied – and got the job. He started in the role right after completing his final qualifying exam. This is far from unusual – in Germany at least, says Simon. The legal training for would-be lawyers allows for the final stage to be completed at a company rather than a law firm, encouraging candidates to keep an open mind. The legal clerkship gives both parties the chance to get know each other, and gives the company a chance to see what the would-be lawyer is capable of. It´s a good test-run for both.
Accepting the top job at such an early stage is a bold move nonetheless, and Simon concedes that even in Germany the more usual career path for an in-house lawyer is to spend five years or so in a law firm first. “We have the saying 'to jump into cold water'. At some stage in your career you have to jump into the cold water anyway, and in my case it came rather quick.”
Yet Simon has noticed a trend for mid-sized companies such as his to recruit younger and younger general counsel. Why? “Because they see the advantage of having someone young, to throw them in the cold water and see if they’ll be able to swim.”
Starting-up a GC career
Another fruitful source of general counsel jobs for less seasoned practitioners is the start-up. Those with entrepreneurial leanings, keen to mix their legal skills with hands-on operational responsibilities are often rewarded early with a role at the legal helm of organisations with only a handful of employees.
Josh Horowitz, of San Francisco-based crowdfunding platform Tilt is one such GC. “At law school, positioning myself towards start-ups was a very big focus of mine,” he says. “I was very much interested in new enterprises, new companies, and the energy around that.” He graduated and launched a start-up with a college friend. It didn’t work, but he had got the bug and went on to work for a new skincare and cosmetics venture, before joining Tilt. He was hired as the company’s first lawyer, and was promoted to general counsel after a year and a half with the company - four years after finishing law school.
Ben Gross has a similar story. The New York-based 31-year-old is general counsel and director of music operations at Genius, a website where users can annotate texts such as song lyrics, poetry and speeches. “I just wasn’t crazy about the idea of going into a firm after I finished law school,” he says. “I was always leaning toward more entrepreneurial activities.” After graduation, he completed a public interest scholarship, worked at an urban policy think tank, and got involved in a mixed-use real estate project start-up, before being hired as general counsel for Genius.
Many start-ups have no in-house legal capacity at all. But in areas like San Francisco (the hub for tech-based start-ups in the US), the corporate counsel is an increasingly familiar member of the team. Josh puts this down to the development of regulation in response to innovation. “More and more companies are either entering business areas that are closely regulated, or are businesses that are themselves pushing on regulation. Think about companies like Airbnb and Uber. Those companies are really playing around with laws and regulations out here, and so it’s important for them to have in-house legal capacity from the word go.”
That’s not to say that all those companies have GCs at an early stage of their careers. But new start-ups often have young founders, and received wisdom says that people like to hire in their own image.
Is there a correlation between young CEOs and young GCs?
39-year-old GC of Nigeria-based Atlantic Energy, Dayo Okusami, thinks there is: “If you look at sectors like the internet, oil and gas, electricity, they are being pushed by people who are of a younger generation, and it just makes sense to me that they would hire people that are of their generation as well.” He pinpoints a trend towards a lowering of the age of GCs among medium-sized and smaller companies in the main – those more likely to have younger CEOs, COOs and founders. It is something that he has experienced himself. Atlantic Energy, a private upstream oil and gas company, was founded in 2011 and has a CEO in his 40s. Dayo puts the rise of younger GCs in certain types of company down to a broader trend of business leaders becoming younger, rather than a deliberate drive to recruit GCs with fewer years under their belt.
“The more senior the corporate counsel,
the less involved they tend to be with
day-to-day legal matters.”
An obvious side-effect of hiring more junior counsel is cost – a lawyer five years out of law school will command more modest compensation than one who has spent fifteen years at the coalface. But if a company opts for a GC at the younger end of the spectrum, can they expect to see other benefits?
In the start-up world, having energy, flexibility and limited family obligations goes a long way, according to Ben Gross. “You have the ability to make yourself entirely available to a project. Sometimes it gets very intense and you need to spend very late nights or weekends really deep in this stuff.”
A fresh pair of eyes is another quality a less experienced GC might bring to the table – the chief benefit of the “cold water” approach described by Simon Haug. “You have someone that challenges the company’s old habits,” Simon argues, as well as being “very willing to learn, to ask a lot of questions, and someone who has a lot of ideas to improve things – and the motivation to pursue those ideas.”
There is also a valuable political role that a younger GC can play, he adds – ensuring the views and ideas of the younger workforce have an airing before the senior team.
But it is easy to counter that many of these qualities are personal characteristics rather than features exclusively demonstrated by those in the spring-time of their careers. Dayo attributes the hunger associated with being young to ambition as much as to youth, simply because the earlier days are decisive for young lawyers who wish to prove themselves. “I’m in the middle of my career now – this is where I’ve got to make my mark,” he says.
Younger members of the profession are also expected to be better-versed in new technologies, but at web-based start-up Tilt, Josh Horowitz wonders about this. “Could it be that some businesses require people to be within certain age-brackets to really get the business? I’m really not that much of an ageist.” Genius’s Ben Gross shares his scepticism. “I don’t think there’s anything functionally more valuable about being young when it comes to tech world stuff,” he argues.
Don’t forget the Seasoning
Having fewer years of practice has its drawbacks too, our GCs agreed. It is a mistake to defer solely to accumulated experience, says Ben, but deferring to uninformed confidence can also be dangerous. “Experience is super valuable,” he explains. “I’ve been wrong about things and wasted time and effort on pushing and shaping things when folks that have been around the block knew how it was going to turn out.” In his tenure so far there have been no great triumphs of youth over experience – the key is to keep an open mind and be brave: “Really push to challenge received wisdom. Sometimes it’s right, and there’s nothing you can do, but sometimes pushing can actually get you to a better place than you thought you could get.”
Less seasoned GCs might have to accept a certain degree of cynicism from colleagues – like anyone who achieves a senior position early on in their career. Dayo Okusami became a law firm partner at 34, and laughs about past encounters. “I’d go to a meeting and they’d say: ‘Oh, I’m waiting for your boss,’ and I would say: ‘I am the boss.’” He accepted a general counsel role at 36, and warns that any perceived error (or conflict of viewpoint) might be put down to inexperience or age, which makes it all the more important to prove your competency – and fast.
But, he adds, alongside capability must go humility and willingness to grasp learning opportunities with both hands. “The biggest mistake a young GC – or partner – can make is thinking: I’ve arrived.” Accepting advice is key, and being receptive to offers of help will often open the floodgates in terms of the support available to the less experienced legal head.
In it together
Lack of experience is undoubtedly a drawback for earlier-stage general counsel, but any lawyer new to the in-house role – irrespective of how battle-scarred – will have a steep learning curve. Josh Horowitz regularly meets with other attorneys to share stories and advice, and has found that taking a senior in-house position creates a level playing field. “If someone has not previously served in a GC position, they are still going to be running into new issues. I have had moments where I have provided my perspective to someone who was much more senior to me, because now we’re in a position where we’re doing nearly the same stuff – it doesn’t have to do with age anymore.”
Reaching out to other GCs to hear their experiences can be a valuable tool for those new in post. Dayo tells of the anxiety he was feeling six months into the job when he attended a meeting of GCs in London. “I left that two-hour meeting with confidence,” he reveals. “There was a gentleman who was the GC of a global bank with a team of 150 saying: ‘These are the problems I have to deal with.’ You have no idea how much relief I had – they were the exact same problems that I had thought were just my problems.”
The right company
Ultimately there can be no guarantee of success in the job, and progress relies on the qualities that individuals bring to the table. Employers are excited about people and the quality of their experience, rather than the length of it. For Josh, despite having left law school just four years previously, being the sole lawyer at Tilt felt like a natural fit from the get-go, thanks to what he had learned at other businesses. “It felt very complimentary to my skillsets – because all the different experience I had was very applicable and relevant to this company,” he claims. Since being in post he has been involved in operations, finance and human resources on top of legal matters, which he believes has been an enormous benefit to framing his legal advice, teaching him to see past the letter of the law and guide management to a business decision – rather than just advise on risk. In turn, he thrives on the excitement and variety of experience that working for a fast-growing and innovative start-up brings. “The lovely thing is that with a company like ours, every quirk means that something new is introduced to what I’m doing. My experience expands at a very rapid pace – it’s not a stagnant existence.”
Getting seen by the C-suite
But does taking a non-traditional shortcut at a smaller company – however hands-on – prepare a new GC for roles at larger companies? Those companies are looking for the ability to manage a team of lawyers, says recruiter Michael Sachs. And most of all, he adds, they are looking for C-suite experience – the ability to interact not just with the CEO, but with a board of directors. “The COO, CFO, CAO all need to know that this person will speak their language when they’re around them, and speak the legal language when they’re around the legal department: that’s really critical.”
This means being able to manage internal politics – and even a long law firm tenure may not adequately prepare a new GC for that. “You have the power to effectively stop the CEO, CFO and shareholders from doing commercial things that they may want to do,” explains Dayo. “So you need to have their respect, both professionally and personally, and you need to show that you know exactly what you’re doing.”
It’s soft skills, not legal skills, that separate the sheep from the lambs, raising a question mark over the benefit of clocking up the hours in private practice honing exceptional legal skills, which are then taken as read by the CEO. Dayo tells the tale of an extremely competent lawyer that lasted less than a year in a very coveted general counsel role because he couldn’t handle the CEO and the board. It’s a daunting task at any age.
In the weeds
But although those legal skills are taken for granted, they are still essential for anyone about to shoulder a general counsel role. Law firm experience is terrific, says Michael, because it gives lawyers a level of precision in their thinking. Executives at larger companies expect their general counsel to have handled complex and difficult matters – so if a lawyer has only a few years’ experience in private practice (or none) it can be difficult to plausibly make this claim. “I think it’s nice for future employers to know that you’ve spent a number of years getting deep into the weeds of some really complicated matters, because it makes you more able to manage that work, to be able to talk the talk with outside counsel, and with your colleagues.” And he holds that this is true even in a company without a substantial in-house team to manage: “I’m not sure I would want to be somebody with only eight years of private practice experience going in-house as the only lawyer. You might make a lot of mistakes, you wouldn’t really know the customs, best practices – you might really flail.”
Of course, the more senior the corporate counsel, the less involved they tend to be with day-to-day legal matters. Going straight into a business, especially a small one, will certainly plunge the novice GC into the corporate weeds, and provide the coveted business nous that CEOs demand. But then, start-ups can buck the trends in unexpected ways. At Tilt, Josh has found that as the company grows, his role has become more legal rather than less, as the business has expanded and hired people to fill non-legal roles that had previously fallen within his remit. He predicts it will become more of a traditional general counsel position as times goes on. “I’ll continue to have more legal work, eventually more people will be hired, and so looking at the medium-term horizon it will go to being more management of legal, whereas right now I’m acting as a manager and working on a number of high-level things – and also the one who is doing all the legal work.”
On moving in-house from private practice, corporate counsel commonly find being parachuted into the team-leader role a shock to the system. Whether this is connected with age or experience, however, is open to argument. Nevertheless as a young GC, it might be wise to tread carefully to win allies. Simon Haug advises those with less notches on their belts to adopt a more consultative management style: “You can’t be a little dictator,” he cautions.
Risk manage your own career
Whatever one’s aptitude for the task, Michael warns that it can be dangerous to accept a general counsel role too early. When the time comes to move onwards and upwards, an employer at a larger company might decide a candidate has too few years of experience, and could also be reluctant to consider someone already in a general counsel job for a lesser position. “Beware of the company that makes you a general counsel too early in your career,” he says. “That job better work out for a long time, otherwise you could be in a difficult job situation.”
Dayo agrees that it’s a decision to be weighed carefully, even for a law firm partner with several years of private practice behind him. However, he adds, for someone who has made GC early and is looking for the next step, there are a number of options available within the business world for the brave, even if one decides not to embark upon the rocky road to the Fortune 500 GC role.
It’s a choice that only the individual can make, although Michael recommends a careful and measured approach: “You need to follow the rhythms of your career, and if it seems like you’re either falling too far behind, or you’re moving too far ahead, too quickly, your instincts are probably right.”
Back in start-up land however, Josh doesn’t accept that this risk applies. “If someone’s going to different start-up events, they’re keeping current on what’s happening in the industry, they have friends who are in start-ups, who are founders, they are educating themselves on the different business aspects involved in the decision-making – in other words, they round off their experience in the law firm with other experiences – I see no reason taking a senior role early in your career should be a detriment.”
Dayo advises against being hampered by fear of the unknown. Josh, too, acknowledges the apprehension around becoming general counsel, but, he points out, there are practical steps that can be taken to shore up any weaknesses – be it meeting other general counsel, or reading up on relevant topics. Above all, he says, “getting rid of the notion that you have to come in perfect – that really takes the strain off the whole experience.”
Perhaps that is career advice that applies to any corporate counsel – whatever their age.