How to become General Counsel?

Lawyers are accustomed to planning their careers years in advance from an early age. You go to law school and apply for summer schemes or training contracts when you are still early on in your academic career, in the UK as you might be as young as 18 years old when applying for your first taste of summer at a law firm. Along the way though all the planning: which firm? what practice area? Is replaced by a myriad of requests on your time and you find work and life takes you in directions you won’t have necessarily planned for. As a head hunter with a breadth of experience placing qualified lawyers from 1st year associate through to General Counsel (GC) across EMEA I am often asked by my network “how do I make GC?”.

The textbook says you need: good academics, solid law firm training and a good chunk of experience (time served) in your desired field. This is largely true, if you took a cross section of GC’s from various industries this pattern holds. What the above doesn’t tell you is how to put these raw ingredients together to achieve your desired result or what to do when you are thrown off course.

The choices we made as teenagers have affected the rest of our lives. In bygone years it was very possible to have gone to a less than average university with poor grades and end up a partner in a top law firm or General Counsel of a decent corporate if you were bright and presented well. Times changed, in this epoch everything is that much more competitive. If you are not “on track” from the age of around 13 the likelihood of making it into a top position within the law is (at least statistically) significantly reduced. If you have made it into big law at all in the 21st century, particularly without great academics that is a huge achievement in itself, well done. The task of making it to the top of your profession will still unfortunately be that much harder than it will for your Oxbridge contemporaries and you will have to be better in many cases to overcome the perceived negative.

At the outset of your career it is a good idea to look at what emerging areas of law are and which direction industry is heading towards, at the moment, compliance and regulatory seems to be on a growth trajectory as a practice area, as does technology as an industry sector. Picking an area on the upswing to focus on gives you the best chance of playing the percentages and getting to the top, conversely choosing an area or industry in decline reduces your chances dramatically. If you are a pensions associate your chance of moving in house and one day making GC is much lower than if you are a commercial TMT lawyer for example, so it pays to always think ahead.

If you didn’t do a training contract at a top city or US firm your chances of becoming GC are automatically reduced in many jurisdictions. This initial early law firm experience is a must have for a lot of companies and those who trained in house are sadly often looked down upon as technically inferior by their in-house counterparts with law firm experience. This is a sweeping generalisation that is often just not true, it should also be noted that in mainland Europe this stigma does not exist in the way that it does in the UK and Asia and many fantastic GCs on the continent started their careers in house.

To make General Counsel most of the work happens at the beginning. You should pick the right place and then hold if the company’s fundamentals are good even when the things turn a little against you (which will happen everywhere over time). If you get into the right business at the right level where you have room to grow even if you don’t become General Counsel there your stock will be on the rise and you can use that capital to propel yourself into the top job at a new company.

If you are currently at a law firm and are wondering when you should leave to transition in house you will probably receive conflicting information depending on who you ask. Conventional wisdom suggests lawyers should leave after having between 4 and 6 years of experience as an associate. However, I am now more than ever seeing really exciting in house positions for 2-3 PQE lawyers particularly within buy side financial services and more boutique corporates cropping up than ever before. If you have the chance to get great experience in a smaller structure where there is still support at hand don’t stay in private practice for the sake of it. Making a move to a big bank at 5 PQE as a VP in a team of 100 other lawyers is a far less certain way to make GC than a move to an exciting hedge fund at 2 PQE with only one or two other lawyers. Add to that the difficulty of moving in house when you become too senior (8+ PQE in a law firm) and holding on for too long could mean you risk not making partner and not being able to find an in house job, clearly the worst possible outcome for most.

As you progress in your career on the path to General Counsel there are typically more personal and political obstacles you will have to navigate to make it to the top. If you took a career break to have a family or spent a significant amount of time in another jurisdiction getting back on track can be tough. The key as alluded to earlier is to do your research on your target companies and play to your strengths. If you have Asia experience, look for international companies that do business there where working in that region might form part of your new role; this is vastly preferable to a local role with a domestic focus, hiring managers for these positions will probably see time away from their market as a negative to be overcome rather than a strength to be embraced.

All too often I speak with senior generalist candidates unsure of how to take the next leap in their legal career. I ask them what type of role they are looking for; I frequently hear that it could be anything from a senior lawyer at an insurer in Hong Kong to GC of a technology firm in Amsterdam. They have a wide breadth of experience and feel it is possible to turn their hand to anything they choose but are unsure why they aren’t getting the chance to interview for the right types of opportunities.

An in house legal team is like a pyramid in 99/100 organisations (I have also less commonly seen a silo/committee structure). What this means is that there are far fewer GC roles than positions anywhere else in the legal hierarchy. Because many companies suggest a minimum amount of experience for their top job (usually between 10-20 years) and no maximum experience cap the pool of candidates is also huge. It makes the hunt for GC particularly at top companies very much a buyers’ market. This has led to more and more clients being ultra-specific about the background and desired personality attributes of their GC hire leaving a lot of generalists to fall through the cracks.

If you find yourself in this generalist conundrum the best thing to do is play to your strengths (or pick a couple and focus on them). Think about where you have the most relevant experience, what sector, what type of work. Look at the market conditions and assess whether there are likely to be potential opportunities in that market segment that could be right for you and then be relentless about pursuing them. There are a lot of tips and tricks I can share around how to go about doing this but those will be saved for another article!

In summation, the way to become General Counsel is to prepare. Think ahead, no matter what level of lawyer you are, be pragmatic and open to opportunity, many of the candidates I work with are not active job seekers but they are open to hearing about exceptionally interesting positions that will enhance their career. Do a deep dive and discover then sell your winning attributes to potential employers, take stock of prevailing market conditions and stick where you are if the fundamentals are right until that great new role becomes an option for you.


Ken Collins, Partner, Greenway Collins


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