Managing your career as General Counsel – Q&A series

Author Nikki Newton
October 12, 2020

The role of the general counsel has changed significantly over the last decade. General counsels no longer simply provide advice, manage risk and ensure legal compliance. Today’s general counsel is expected to help steer the business through periods of change and meet commercial objectives whilst operating as a business enabler and an essential adviser to the board. With such a broad range of skills developed in the role of a general counsel, we are often asked what opportunities are available to general counsels both internally and externally once they have reached the coveted general counsel position. During our recent webinar, we received several questions for our panellists. Below, our panel of established general counsels share their experiences and advice on how they have developed and expanded their roles.

Our highly credible and impressive group of panellists included:

View the full webinar:

Athene Blakeman, Group General Counsel at Benchmark Holdings plc

How have you been able to pursue moving into other roles whilst being in the day to day work. In the current climate, many legal teams are pretty lean – so how do you elevate yourself from the low level detail?

This is a challenge and there is no easy answer. First, I think it is important to think about the value that each member of the team is capable of contributing at any given time. If it is possible for something to be delegated, then it should be delegated – this makes the most of the resources at hand and helps everyone to develop and grow. If there is no one to delegate to, but work that should be delegated, then the team may be too small or top heavy. Second, make sure that the low-level detail is value-adding to the business – things do not need to be perfect, rather outcomes need to be aligned with the business’ goals. Third, understanding the business and its strategy and goals is a core part of being the GC, it is not really optional if we are to contribute in a valuable way – including in the detail. But all that said, there are limits and there is a need to juggle. One great element about the GC role, which is also a challenge, is that it is both strategic and hands-on, so one expects to be involved in some detail (at least where the team is small), and in parallel be juggling high level issues.

Do you have any tips on developing financial skills outside of reading the board pack? Have you done a course or similar on finance?

Yes. Many years ago, whilst in private practice, I did a four-month part-time finance course with BPP. It was good for getting comfortable looking at a P&L and Balance Sheet at a basic level, and I would recommend a similar dedicated finance course. In-house, I would recommend picking the brains of the CFO and financial controller from time to time, dedicating time before and after Board and audit committee meetings to ensure that everything discussed is thoroughly understood, and – confession coming – resorting to Google when there is new terminology and you don’t know where to start. I would also recommend the Harvard Business Review, both for general strategic and management information and to broaden one’s understanding of financial concepts, which has a wealth of excellent material.

William Marwick, COO at IFX Payments

How do you balance legal work with the additional non-legal projects you’ve taken on when for example you have been fully open with CFO/CEO on the fact you want to step out of a legal role?

Always make sure you prioritize your legal projects and fulfil your purpose within the organization but look at how those projects fit into the wider strategy and see how you can piggyback into other aspects of the wider initiative. Look at projects you’re already involved in as a starting point and evaluate if there are additional non-legal areas you would like to contribute towards and bring in your other skills. Put your thoughts forward, ask questions and offer to help in areas you’re interested in. Focus on areas of the business or tasks that you have a genuine interest in though because you’ll need to go above and beyond to help which will be a strong indicator that you’re ready to move into a non-legal role or take on non-legal projects. Don’t just say yes to any request as you risk undermining your ability to move to a non-legal function because your commitment doesn’t come through. Be open with your colleagues about expanding your horizons and trying new things; it’s a great quality to see in colleagues who just want to keep bettering themselves. That sort of ambition and dedication is the type of thing that gets you invited to contribute to new projects.

What made you do an MBA and would you suggest to a legal counsel to do an MBA?

I knew I wanted to step out of a sole-legal position and into a management role but was conscious I had not had much exposure to the various business functions. As such, I wanted to achieve 2 things:

  • Demonstrate outwardly (to colleagues, the wider business and externally) that I possessed knowledge and skills beyond that of a lawyer; and
  • Use that knowledge to proactively contribute toward non-legal discussions and decision making.

Even if you’re wishing to remain a legal counsel or general counsel; the theory, frameworks and application that you learn on the MBA are extremely transferable to any business and you’ll find demonstrating that knowledge can add value to other departments and will help you become a better lawyer.

James Turner, Chief Legal Officer at Jaja Finance

One obstacle you sometimes need to deal with is when other people/functions feel that you are stepping on their toes. Have you experienced this and how have you dealt with this?

There are really three elements to avoiding being seen to landgrab. The first is actually to be very aware of what other people/functions are accountable for and precisely what levels of authority they have. This is important because, knowing that allows you to move to the next stage – being empathetic. By putting yourself in the shoes of the other person/function, you will generally immediately know if your approach is likely to be viewed negatively. The third element – which once you’ve embedded this actually lessens the strain on the first two – is to do everything collaboratively. If you consistently position everything you do as help/advice/ support and bring it to life as a team effort, people are far less likely even to think that you are treading on toes. I’d add that the advice given by all the panellists wasn’t a suggestion that people go out and just up end other people’s jobs, but rather we were making the point that once people see you genuinely as a trusted adviser, as opposed to someone who went to law school and knows which boilerplate clauses go in a contract, your opportunities to add value – visibly! – suddenly just fall from the sky.

How much importance do you place on being ‘financially literate’?

My view on this is that demonstrating greater financial literacy would transform the careers of many in-house lawyers. There is no need to qualify as an accountant in your spare time! But, organisations (especially but not exclusively in the private and third sectors) generally have budgets and, if you’re a general counsel, you should have a deep understanding of how your organisation makes and spends money. Take a board meeting, for example. Our directors represent our investors, who are largely private equity or venture capital. In our board meetings, we spend a very significant chunk of time going over the management accounts. I believe that many lawyers largely “zone out” of those sections of the meeting, but I regard that as a mistake. If the people who own our company regard something as very important then it is important to me. The other point I’d add is that – especially as you get more senior – you will often find yourself interacting with people who really do largely think in numbers, and being able to meet them in that field helps you influence them.

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