Moving from counsel to general counsel

How do you make that leap to the top job? Mike Fahey, former GC and principal at executive and board search firm RSR Partners, gives some valuable career tips.

There are many talented assistant, associate and deputy general counsel. With limited general counsel or CLO roles, what is the secret to advancing to the top? While the answer is partly ‘it depends’ (we are lawyers, after all), there are common attributes of successful GCs. By deconstructing these qualities, we discern a framework that aspiring C-suite lawyers can leverage to position themselves more strategically to obtain the top role, and excel once there. Tomorrow’s general counsel are proactively preparing themselves for success today.


Forget the GC role: to be effective and productive in any corporate counsel role, you need to know who your critical stakeholders are (internally and externally) and seek to build relationships with them. These may include regulators, the board of directors, the executive team, members of the legal department and other functional teams, your internal clients, industry groups, the Bar Association, ACC [Association of Corporate Counsel] or similar organisations, colleagues at other companies in the industry, law firms, and so on. Relationships are built on trust and mutual benefit – so to build a stronger relationship, ask not (only) what your stakeholders can do for you, but what you can do for your stakeholders.

Lead… and follow

People generally agree that great leaders are confident and decisive. Those qualities are certainly necessary, but not sufficient. Show the board, the CEO and your potential reports that you lead by example: mentor your colleagues and reports, communicate clearly, provide strategic guidance while empowering people, act with integrity and honesty, exhibit fairness (not to be confused with softness) and, yes, follow. Why drop the ‘F’ word into a discussion of leadership? Simply because the best leaders are followers. The likes of Aristotle and Lao-Tsu through to management guru Jim Collins would agree: if you are not a good follower, you cannot be a great leader. Followers are open to learning, will seek out mentors, synthesise data sets and logic, entertain multiple solutions and opinions, and welcome challenges to their hypotheses. Aspiring GCs can engender trust, respect and effectiveness by showing their seniors and juniors that they will exercise judgement and act decisively – following due debate and deliberation.


If you want to be a general (counsel), prioritise like the military: mission, then team, then self. Even if you quietly covet the GC role you must faithfully support your GC, other would-be GCs and colleagues in their projects. Do everything you can to make them successful. Getting the GC role is not about undermining or bringing down your competition; it is about rising above it.


To land a counsel role, what you know is essential. Knowing what you don’t know is the mark of a great GC candidate. Great C-suite candidates (and directors) are not those that necessarily have all the answers, but ask all the right questions. Be intellectually curious, spend time thinking, learn from those below (as well as above) you. See the forest, but focus on the trees – do not rely on assumptions, biases or a ‘we have always done it this way’ mentality. Challenge past practices, anticipate future states (‘see around the bend’) and be data driven. Moving into the GC role, you are being paid for your judgement, your leadership, your effectiveness and your performance under pressure – not for your technical expertise.


Think of Robert Duvall as consigliere in The Godfather, Part I. Great lawyers are great advisers. They focus on the what, and then figure out the how. They do not live in a binary, black and white world. They excel at assessing risk, identifying alternative solutions and taking a position. They challenge the boss, represent the boss externally and internally and have the success of the business at the forefront of their minds. They identify, assess and resolve problems – too many people stop at the first step. One of my favourite clients calls it ‘building machines’ – the bridge between goals and outcome. Whether directly in the legal area or not, a great lawyer will always be looking for ways to tinker, to improve things – then they will build it.


Put simply: ‘The buck stops here’. Publicly praise and privately critique. Act with integrity and honesty – but act. If you see a problem but there is a leadership void, take charge. GCs do not have the luxury of not owning issues arising in the legal realm, so as a would-be GC, seek out that additional responsibility. Increase your ownership. Remember, if there is a failure by anyone on your team, it is your failure. But if there is a great success by someone on your team, it is that person’s and the team’s, not yours. Seem unfair? It isn’t – you are rising above the competition and showing true leadership and confidence. If your team did something great, senior management will naturally attribute some of that success to your leadership and strategy. Your team will feel more valued, and reward you with loyalty and increased productivity.

‘Great lawyers are great advisers. They focus on the what, and then figure out the how. They do not live in a binary, black and white world.’


General counsel are forced to deal with a wide array of legal and business issues; would-be GCs need to make a concerted effort to go beyond their comfort zone with respect to both legal and non-legal issues. Ask to get involved with projects led by other functions or legal department teams. Ask to sit in on internal and external client meetings. Spend time with the product, marketing, strategy, or other teams. Let it be known that you want to learn all of the facets of the company and legal function. Not only will you learn and broaden your horizons, you will demonstrate that you are a team player and spread your network even further.


Leaders must adapt to the circumstances with which they are faced – the general counsel may instruct his lieutenant as to what needs to be achieved (strategic direction), and great would-be GCs will figure out the how (tactics). Complete victory may not always ensue, but without creative and analytical problem-solving, failure may be guaranteed. Demonstrate your ability to think outside the box, to learn from previous failures and to be innovative and creative in achieving exceptional results. If you are not failing, then you are not ambitious enough; not pushing boundaries. Failure is an option – expect it, embrace it, learn from it, and apply the learnings.

Live, laugh and love

Success is subjective. For some, success may be having a GC title or making a certain amount of money. For many, it is a more ephemeral concept. In your rush to get rid of the counsel role, consider first whether you love it. Do you love the deeply technical aspects, and abhor board meetings or administrative and leadership responsibilities? Regardless of your definition, you will be most fulfilled professionally by, and more likely to excel in, a role and subject area that you are passionate about. More importantly, you will be more successful in life if your interest and love extends well beyond your job. So keep a balance that works for you – prioritise family, friends, work, charity, sports or other activities. Be happy. This will make you a better counsel and, if it is on the cards, GC. This extends to corporate fit, as well. Loving the culture and people will make you a more productive, happier employee, and thus enhance your opportunities for advancement. If you don’t fit in with the corporate culture, the leadership team and the legal team, you may be the exceptionally talented technical expert with great tenure, yet never rise to the top. You do not need to be best friends and vacation together, but you need to be someone who others enjoy working with – and want around when the going gets tough.