Heather Fine is a partner with the In-house Counsel Recruiting practice at Major, Lindsey & Africa. Views are the author’s own.
Today, there are many kinds of general counsel with different roles and responsibilities. They span industries of all shapes and sizes, at public and private companies, both large and small.
However, there’s one common thread you’ll notice when hiring a GC these days: This isn’t the same one-dimensional general counsel role of the past.
Due to the complexities of globalization, a more stringent regulatory environment, and a recent storm of social and geopolitical issues, GCs are engaged regularly beyond the boundaries of the traditional legal skill set.
This new role—“GC plus,” if you will—is more in line with the C-suite ranks.
Additionally, while risk mitigation is still a priority, the modern GC is much more than a watchdog who helps their organization navigate legal pitfalls.
If you’re in the market for a general counsel, it’s critical to understand how this function has changed in recent years and how you can shape the role to attract the most capable, qualified, and exciting candidates for your company.
More than “Just a lawyer”: The GC’s rise to prominence
For many years, GCs were solely responsible for legal matters. Then compliance. Now, these areas are the minimum most general counsel are tasked with overseeing.
This role has morphed steadily over time, as have the expectations of lawyers looking to fill it. No longer do candidates want a strict legal advisor job where they are confined to the sidelines.
Modern GC candidates seek to be holistic, executive-level business strategists who impact the organization in a meaningful way, have a seat at the table, and are a valued business partner (who just happens to be a lawyer).
Although change was already well underway, the pandemic accelerated this shift to broader GC duties.
As CEOs grappled with return-to-office structures, international issues, HR matters, communications, and general crisis management, they increasingly sought the perspectives and advice of their general counsel.
The GC had already become pivotal to other areas as well, such as environmental, health and safety (EHS); security; communications; government relations; and general policy matters. In some cases, their role became so significant that it made sense for them to assume responsibility for some of these functions.
As a result, having a GC and legal team that know and understand the business—and utilizing their capabilities—brings greater success for companies on every level.
Tips for attracting a ‘Modern GC’
So now the question is, what’s the best approach to engaging exceptional GC candidates? In some companies, it may require a thoughtful recalibration of the position.
Here are some things to consider when you’re in the market for a new the general counsel:
- Understand the holistic value your top candidates bring: The modern GC wants to be part of “the business” of their company. Consider expanding the scope of the function to include areas such as government affairs, communications, security, EHS, and risk management based on the expertise candidates bring to the table.
- Recognize the candidate’s expertise—and utilize it: Do your candidates have specialized expertise in data privacy, environmental law, transactional matters, international issues, or high stakes litigation, to name a few? Have these discussions early on, so you can use this information to tailor the role to the candidate’s strengths.
- Have your GC report directly to the CEO: Organizations that strategically position their GC not only attract better candidates; they’re more likely to avoid legal, ethical, and compliance problems down the road. That means having your GC report directly to the CEO and giving them the ability to engage with the board of directors. This reporting structure empowers your general counsel to better support the CEO and more closely guide strategy and decision-making. It also sends a message that your company is committed to achieving the highest standards of ethics and compliance.
- Make them board secretary: GCs want to know they’ll have extensive contact with the board, which makes them an ideal fit for the secretary role. It’s a large responsibility, giving them visibility and a front-row seat to critical decision-making. And if your company has a board secretary, ensure the GC is interacting with the board and part of all critical meetings.
- Bring the GC prominently into ESG efforts: Increasingly, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is a crucial component of many companies’ business models. Given the profound legal implications of ESG today, and growing pressure from internal and external stakeholders, consider engaging your GC in building and growing an effective ESG program. Many modern GCs feel personally committed to the tenets of ESG and the long-term sustainability model.
- Give them a meaningful team size: Thriving modern GCs have a strong team supporting them and the organization. They welcome the chance to mentor and lead others, assist with career progression, and strategize for succession planning. Equip your GC with the right resources and the ability to build a diverse, collaborative team with different skill sets and perspectives.
- Ask your top candidate what they want: Lawyers are not shy about discussing their aspirations for the GC roles they pursue or helping you to understand the value they bring beyond legal. Candidates will share their desire to assume certain responsibilities as GC, so listen and consider an expansion of the role to meet candidates where they are and utilize a GC’s talents holistically.
- Compensate the modern GC: Compensation has become increasingly competitive among top GC talent. With this expanded role, comes greater responsibility, and meaningful compensation is one additional way to demonstrate your desire to attract the modern GC. Although benchmarking is important, talk to your search consultants to understand the current landscape and trends so you can develop a package that will attract the best candidates.
To make the optimal GC hire, thinking broader is a must
Attracting premier legal leaders requires enhancing the responsibilities of your general counsel and raising their profile on the leadership team and across the organization.
This is what modern GCs expect, and it’s what they’ve been trained for.
Setting a lofty bar for your GC will draw in a higher-caliber, diverse set of candidates, and the kind who will confidently tackle any challenges they encounter.
What’s more, elevating the stature of the GC from simply “the lawyer” to strategic business partner will help your company be more responsive, agile, and successful in a rapidly changing corporate and legal environment.