Becoming a GC in Today’s Legal Environment
One of the things that’s most attractive about going into a legal career is the number of career options. You can work at a big firm, a small firm, start your own solo practice, work on policy, in government, and in house with a company. When considering the menu of opportunities, many attorneys’ ears perk up at certain prospects, especially attorneys who have tried one path and want to explore another.
The in-house corporate attorney, also called general counsel (GC), is an intriguing and oftentimes misunderstood role. If you’re thinking about becoming a GC, here are some things to know.
GCs start out with a connection to business
The General Counsel role for a company is often filled by someone who was acting as legal counsel outside of the corporation for a while. They may have been part of a law firm, or one of many lawyers the company retained. They likely worked in an area of corporate, securities, IP, or HR law. The main point is that many GCs work with a company for a while as outside counsel, establish trust, and find that they fit with the company’s internal culture. By the time they move into the GC role, they’re already part of the family, so to speak.
Another way lawyers move into the GC role is by starting out with a business career and then moving into law. There are plenty of entrepreneurs and business executives who start their careers in the corporate world, go back to school to get a law degree, and end up back in business, now in a legal capacity. The motivating factor for these folks is that they really like creative problem solving in a business context. Helping a company grow, manage risk, and be successful is what drives them.
The expectation and the reality don’t always match up
Sometimes the expectations of a GC role matches the reality. Sometimes it doesn’t. I know, that’s such a lawyer quip! As in house counsel, you’re a full time employee, like everyone else on the team. Therefore, you’re now subject to the same challenges all corporate executives face. If the leadership changes, or the company ends up not doing as well as forecasted, or the culture shifts, or your job requirements change (not to your liking), you may find yourself in a role you weren’t expecting in a company you no longer want to work for.
Instead of just getting more clients as a firm lawyer, if you want to leave, you are stuck looking for a new job. That’s why the outsourced GC model is so great – you can be an “in-house” attorney to more than one company.
There are also discrepancies in the type of work GCs do that are important to note. Some will tell you their job is 80% business leadership and management, and 20% practicing law. Some spend all their time managing outside counsel and spend the rest of their time on transactional matters. Some act more as an advisor and conduct investor relations. Some have the space and encouragement to be entrepreneurial inside their organizations, others have a strict playbook they’re expected to follow. Depending on what you love about being a lawyer, if you find the right GC role, you’ll likely get a lot of value out of becoming a full-time member of a corporate team.
A typical day in the life of a GC is… typical of a full time corporate executive
If you are in-house GC you go to the office every day. You participate in executive and board meetings. At any given time you may be working on IP matters, corporate governance, reviewing contracts, and managing internal issues such as HR and operations.
As an outsourced GC, you may have a very similar day, but reduced to just once or twice a week with each company you work with. Many outsourced GCs have a completely virtual practice. They work from home, co-working spaces, cabins, beaches… you get the idea. Tools like Slack, PandaDoc, and Carta have made this work style frictionless.
Not all lawyers fit the GC type
There are many different types of lawyers. There are researchers, communicators, managers, litigators, and entrepreneurs to name a few. The GC role is best suited to communicators, managers, and entrepreneurs. This isn’t a research role, and it’s seldom a courtroom role. it’s a doing role. GCs must be quick thinking, good problem solvers, and able to communicate clearly – in a non-legal-jargony-way with executives who need actionable advice quickly.
This might be why entrepreneurs and business execs who become lawyers thrive as GCs. Any type of leadership & business experience is helpful, as well as having a practice area specialty in corporate, IP, or employment law.
Why consider becoming a GC, and when to pull the trigger
The turning point for many GCs is actually a simple one — when they’re tired of billing by the hour, meeting hourly quotas, and dealing with law firm politics. It almost always comes down to personal preferences, a desire to balance their life while going deep with one company vs. staying shallow with many.
For an outsourced GC, it’s even more about the flexibility paired with a desire to a part of building something. Outsourced GCs usually get to work with companies that are in scale mode, which is a really exciting time to be involved. The flexibility of the role allows them to work with a few companies in this space, while also being able to flex their entrepreneurial muscle, and having control over their day-to-day.
Becoming a GC is a great move for experienced attorneys that love business culture and are sick of the traditional model they’ve endured at law firms. Starting out as an outsourced GC can be a great first step to discovering if this is the right career path for you.