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The business skillset every General Counsel needs

Thriving in-house legal departments build value and get results for their organization, through an integrated and practice delivery approach. They also require great leadership, and the role of the General Counsel is critical to their success. For a General Counsel to lead effectively, they need to not only be an exemplary lawyer, but also harness a solid business skillset. As their reach impacts every facet of the organization, their decisions need to be business savvy internally and externally. This calls for the General Counsel to have a solid understanding of their companies operating model and general business practice. 

Possessing business savvy allows a General Counsel to wear both their legal and business hats to make informed strategic and operational decisions that align with the company's objectives. This ultimately saves time and money. However, one does have to ask, what makes good legal judgement?

A major Gartner report puts it this way: “As a starting point, GC should think about the role they occupy and have a direct conversation with the CEO about long-term corporate needs. GC should rework their future commitments, so that they are keenly focused on the highest priority corporate goals and strategy.” Essentially if legal is aligned with the overall business goals, everybody wins. 

Just like good judgement, good communication is key for a General Counsel. Transparent and clear communication with the legal department, the rest of the organization and the executive leadership team puts legal on the front foot. The company is aware of legal decisions as they are made and how they will impact the business. The American Bar Association’s advice on communication surrounds conveying an objective and providing those impacted with clear expectations, timelines, and potential challenges. 

But not every General Counsel possesses business savvy, and those who don’t may be thinking, how can I achieve it? The first step is to understand your business. What services does it offer? What is its edge? Who are its target clients? Having this basic knowledge puts the legal department in a better position to offer advice and make decisions that align with the organization's objectives and values. Knowledge is power, after all. Sir Richard Branson puts it this way, “Do your research.”

Branson is also a big proponent of putting the team’s well-being above your own – which inevitably leads to success. As he says: “If you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of your shareholders.” For General Counsel, this applies to their treatment of the legal department and the wider organization. If General Counsel takes care of and respects their legal team, and has open and honest communication with the rest of the organization, they will foster loyalty and trust. This encourages employees to genuinely care for the customers and stakeholders that the organization serves. In other words: it’s important to be a good leader – and support other people so they can support you. A win-win all around.

Business is built upon the principle that “time is money”, and as such, time is never something to be wasted. According to KPMG, General Counsel play the role of a “barometer” particularly in complicated transactional environments. An array of corporate issues will run past General Counsel’s desk, giving them an oversight of the business ‘weather’. This daily information combined with General Counsel’s business knowledge allows them to forward think and calculate risk. However, to be able to stay on the front foot of this constant tide of legal, corporate and strategic decisions, General Counsel need to be well organized and responsive.

Cue digital disruption. This is where the migration of legal onto one workflow technology platform is crucial as it provides General Counsel with much better data to monitor the legal department and businesses responsibilities. A technology platform provides agility and brings the legal department on par with the rest of the organization. Ultimately it gives General Counsel a much clearer ship to steer.

General Counsel should build themselves a business toolkit that is filled with all of these things. They include good communication, operational business knowledge, a loyal team, legal workflow technology, respect for their colleagues and sound judgement for effective leadership. By doing so they will position themselves as the organization’s barometer, and perhaps even ‘horizon scanners’, predicting any storms to come.

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