Blog Post

6 Traits of a High-Performing General Counsel

July 17, 2023

Recent data shows a projected 90% increase in demand for corporate legal department services in the coming years. However, a third of this demand will go unmet because of forecasted growth. This means the role of general counsel will become more difficult as chief legal officers seek creative ways to address current issues with limited resources.

Consider these six traits of a high-performing general counsel, from our 2022 General Counsel Survey, “Breaking Free,” to transform how you think about your position for future success.

Key Takeaways

  • The role of general counsel requires acute financial awareness of the legal department’s operations and its impact on the company, shown through budget savviness and a shareholder mindset. 
  • High-performing GCs excel at delegating legal processes and maximizing available resources. 
  • Proactive change management and the adoption of technology are two ways of staying ahead of the curve as general counsel in an unpredictable future.

1. Budget Savviness

Every corporate legal department operates as a professional service business within a larger organization. This means not only the outcome of legal processes matter to your C-suite and board but also the financial effectiveness of those outcomes. In other words, are you making the most of your budget? This requires thoughtful analysis of the financial impact of decisions on legal actions. For example:

  • Engaging outside counsel and managing their spend.
  • Hiring FTE versus outsourcing to ALSPS.
  • Exploring technology solutions to automate certain legal processes.
  • Using data analytics to inform money decisions on legal workflows.

The second part of budget savviness is defending its size. Many legal teams struggle to justify their costs to executive decision-makers, leading to departments often running on very finite resources. Part of this tension exists because your work does not directly contribute to the company’s central product or service.

Rather, your efforts are adjacent, showing up in risk prevention and mitigation. To retain or grow your budget, you must demonstrate how the legal department saves the company money through regulatory compliance, contract negotiations, and litigation resolution.

Being an expert in resourcing your legal operations is closely related to budget savviness. This aspect of a GC role involves making sure the right people or teams are executing the best legal operations suited to them. You can accomplish resource expertise by considering four factors:

  • The nature of the project (e.g., subject matter, business sensitivity, and timeline)
  • The skill set of the resource
  • The cost of the resource
  • The value of the project to your C-suite and business units

With these factors in mind, organize your operations onto a productivity matrix. This will guide you in knowing the tasks that should be handled in-house by your full-time employees and the jobs that could benefit from outsourcing to other subject matter or process experts, such as an ALSP.

Conscious resourcing of legal operations among in-house teams, ALSPs, and outside counsel will generate improvements in productivity, a primary concern of today’s GC.

3. Prioritization of Diversity Development within the Legal Department

Diversity is essential for a healthy and sustainable legal department. As a general counsel, developing this characteristic within your department is crucial to build resiliency and ensure the team is never lacking fresh perspectives or ideas. Of course, diversity is most effective when all team members have equal opportunities and platforms for input and collaboration.

A diverse legal team can attract top talent and plays an important aspect in succession planning within the department. Another advantage of maintaining a diverse legal team is the increased ability to connect with colleagues in other business units through shared experiences that transcend defined work roles.

When fostering diversity, consider the benefit of adding talent beyond traditional legal skill sets. For example, individuals with expertise in finance, data analysis, computer science, and other subjects that relate to the company or its legal operations.

4. Future-Oriented Vision that Incorporates Technology Advancements

We are experiencing a transformative period in commerce and industry with the continued advancement of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). These technologies will eventually become integral to how legal departments operate if they aren’t already.

Every legal department will have different needs and expectations for incorporating technology, and as a GC, your role involves crafting a realistic vision that bridges the present to the future. Developing this vision requires time, commitment, and consistency, which you can achieve by:

  • Familiarizing yourself with available technology and how it could play a positive role in your department (e.g., attend conferences, trade shows, demonstrations).
  • Identifying the projects and processes that could benefit the most from immediate technology adoption and starting there.
  • Understanding the costs of implementation.
  • Training staff on using the technology.
  • Recognizing the limitations of the technology and how they translate into business or legal risks.

5. Relentless in Embracing Change

The role of general counsel involves constant change management. Leaders who embrace that reality are better positioned to seize opportunities and showcase resiliency when faced with surprises. The easiest way to embrace change in your legal department is through preparation.

Here are some ways you can prepare for change as a GC:

  • Use data analytics and forecasts to stay ahead of changes and better predict the future needs or issues of the department.
  • Keep contract playbooks and process maps to retain institutional knowledge in the event of turnover in your legal talent.
  • Maintain relationships with ALSPs and outside counsel who can handle rush projects and unique legal issues.

6. A Shareholder Mindset

Maintaining a shareholder mindset provides an edge and perspective that will influence every recommendation and process decision you make as a GC. Your goal is to align with the company’s core purpose and ethos. Ultimately, you should make choices that are not only legally effective but also business effective. Developing this trait requires a constant understanding of the needs of your C-suite and a critical eye toward the financial outcome of your decisions.

Alt text: Business alignment is key for having a shareholder mindset while in the role of general counsel.

Boost Your Performance as a General Counsel with Exigent on Your Side

The sign of a brilliant leader is not being an expert in everything but knowing how to find experts when needed. For GCs, having an ALSP on their team can be an effective resource for overcoming a variety of hurdles facing today’s corporate legal teams. Exigent provides a range of services, including litigation support, legal spend consultation, contract lifecycle management, legal operation design, and more.

Schedule a free consultation today.