Beth Lebowitz* What exactly is the role of an in-house counsel or a general counsel? How does one prepare for that career path or even find where the path begins? Interested in making the leap from big law to an in-house role? In this article we dig into what a GC is, does, and who makes for a good fit.
In-house GC’s Are Part of the Team as Company Executives
As a general counsel, you have the option of working as in-house counsel or as an Outsourced General Counsel. As an in-house GC, a typical day means that you’ll work from the office of your employer.
You may have a board meeting one day, or you could be working on IP matters, some corporate governance, or negotiating a big vendor or customer contract. Generally, you’ll find yourself in the office with other colleagues at the company in an executive leadership role. GCs are often also executive officers of the Company in the role of VP, Secretary, COO, etc.
It just so happens that you’re also a lawyer.
One thing I’d advise to consider in this role is its commitment, which can be a wonderful perk or a potential detriment, depending on the company and your personality. Obviously, being a part of a successful, scaling company can be a huge advantage.
However, if you end up in a company where the leadership changes, or company ends up not doing as well as it should, you may find yourself underpaid and/or bored. And instead of just getting more clients as a firm lawyer would, you’re now looking for a new job.
There may also be a discrepancy in the type of work you’re doing. Some GCs will tell you that their job is 80% business leadership, and only 20% the actual practice of law. You’ll likely spend a lot of time managing the other lawyers and people inside the company, and could end up doing more management, and more of what could be considered “lower level” contract review or focus on an area of the law that was never your interest.
However, many in-house GCs gain value and appreciation out of truly becoming a member of the team, the amazing experience that comes with being part of the leadership team of a growing or established business, and find a richer purpose when they’re able to be both innovative and business-minded.
Outsourced GC’s Enjoy Their Flexibility and Options
As an outsourced GC, you’re able to work with as many companies you decide to take on, with varying levels of engagement. You may have a similar day as an in-house counsel, but only once or twice a week for a particular company.
You also have the option of managing a completely virtual practice, so your office is wherever you have your laptop and mobile (and coffee). As long as you’re able to effectively communicate with your team(s), you’re able to tackle projects at the pace that you set.
The flexibility is there to experiment with the role and find where you excel, which can be incredibly exciting. If you find that a company isn’t the right fit (or, worse case scenario, the company fails), it won’t be as disruptive to your career as a full-time role with any one company.
Of course, an outsourced role isn’t always the perfect match. If you’re someone who appreciates more structure throughout their day, or finds that a traditional work schedule provides a routine that you count on, then the more yielding nature of an outsourced role may prove to be disruptive or unsettling to your practice. This role also falls completely on you to balance, find and nurture your clients, and set schedules that benefit everyone involved.
Determining if the GC Role Fits Your Practice
In my experience, I’ve certainly come across some patterns in what tends to lead an attorney to the GC role. For the in-house GC, I typically see an attorney who has worked with businesses doing corporate or securities law, or maybe even IP law, for some time. After working with a company for a while, that company has a certain level of trust in the attorney — and the attorney likes the company — so the attorney moves over to an in-house role as that company’s GC.
I’ve also seen entrepreneurs who’ve started their own companies, then earned a law degree, and end up working in a business. At the end of the day, I believe that the motivating factor is that they intrinsically enjoy creative problem solving within a business context. Those attorneys find fulfillment in helping their company grow, managing its risk, and becoming successful.
Outsourced GCs typically crave a more flexible work-life balance than a traditional 9-5 role tends to give. They’re tired of billing by the hour, meeting hourly quotas, and generally dealing with law firm politics and drama. Successful outsourced GCs really enjoy working with businesses and helping them grow, and excel when they’re a part of building something. It’s not that they don’t want the responsibility, they just want more control over their day-to-day.
Obviously, there are culture and personality fits to consider for the GC role as well. The attorneys who do best in the GC position are good managers and excellent communicators. At the end of the day, this isn’t a research role — it’s a doing role. To be successful, a GC absolutely must be able to think quickly, and efficiently respond to and analyze any questions or issues that come across their table. The other company executives they’re working with will need practical and actionable advice, as quickly as possible.
In reality, any type of leadership or business experience leading into this role is helpful, as well as your practice area either being corporate or business- focused. If you possess a clever and creative mind, and are able to make timely, confident business decisions, then I believe a GC role could be a great fit for your practice.
Taking the Leap into a GC Role
As I mentioned previously regarding the in-house GC role, this position tends to evolve naturally between an attorney and a business who’ve been working together for a while. If you’re ready to move into an in-house role, speak to the company you’ve been working with, especially if they’re growing. Chances are, they could be ready for full-time legal counsel, and if they already know and trust you, it’s a win-win situation.
For those considering becoming an outsourced GC, the leap can feel a bit scarier. Most attorneys who work in a traditional law firm will stay put, as the myth of the law firm safety net keeps them in place well after their job satisfaction has waned.
However, outsourced and fractional executive roles are growing in every industry around the world, as more and more people (and companies) find value in leveraging these on-demand working relationships. Today’s client is also much savvier than they used to be, and this changing consumerism has led clients to expect more from their attorneys than hours billed on work completed. They’re starting to expect more intelligent uses of resources, in order to help them solve their legal and business challenges.
What’s more, there are resources available to help you kick-start your own outsourced practice. For these outsourced GCs, the creation of a strong, predictable business relationship means recurring revenue, predictability, and significant value both for themselves and their clients.
Client loyalty soars when you align economic and business interests as a staple of the relationship.
Author Bio: Beth Lebowitz is the Founder and CEO of Auxana Inc., a marketplace for companies, attorneys, and executive resources, and the Founding Attorney of Nimbus Legal, an Outsourced General Counsel law firm.