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Navigating New Waters: The Shift From Outside Counsel to General Counsel

Female General Counsel working with her female peers.
Tips for making the transition from outside counsel to General Counsel.

This morning, I had the opportunity to connect with an individual inspired by a post on Ready Set GC's LinkedIn page. In a few short weeks, he will transition from his seasoned role in private practice to his first in-house position as a General Counsel. As the first and only in-house lawyer at his new company, he sought guidance on this significant career pivot.

Preparing for our discussion felt akin to panel preparation or an interview. What could I offer in terms of actionable advice to smooth his transition? Specifically, how will this role differ from his experience as an outside counsel advisor?

Here are two 'Top 3 Lists' that emerged from my preparation and our conversation. The first outlines the key differences between being a GC and an outside counsel. The second provides focal points for the first 90 days in the new role.

Top 3 Ways the GC Role Differs from Outside Counsel

  1. Rapid-Fire Decision-Making: In-house counsel are often pressed for time, lacking the luxury of extensive information or resources. Decisions must be made swiftly. My advice? Learn to think on your feet and trust your instincts. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I moved in-house was to make the best decision you can with the information, time, and resources you have at hand. You may not always hit the mark, but you'll be able to justify and stand by your decisions. It's daunting at first, but it does get easier with time.

  2. Master the Business Lexicon: Success in-house requires fluency in the language of business, a far cry from the language of legal! You'll be communicating with business minds who view legal issues through a different lens. Business problems demand business solutions, even when they're legal in nature. This is particularly crucial for litigators assuming strategic roles. Business clients aren't concerned with the minutiae of legal proceedings; they focus on outcomes and exit strategies. Cultivate clear, concise, and legalese-free communication.

  3. Offer Pathways and Solutions, Not Edicts: More often than not, you're being approached for your insights, suggestions, and problem-solving acumen, rather than directives. Adjusting to this advisory role can be challenging. Strive to present various options, always elucidating the rationale behind them. Oftentimes the “why” is as important as the “what” or the “how.” Clients usually want to think through your guidance rather than be told what to do.

Top 3 Focus Areas for the First 90 Days

  1. Understand the CEO's Vision and Expectations for the Role: Understanding the CEO’s expectations is crucial. Why does the CEO have a GC, what role do they want the GC to play? Having a candid discussion about the role and expectations will help set the tone and help you to prioritize tasks that align with the company's strategic objectives and the CEO’s vision for the role, which may vary from one leader to another. Having this insight and understanding not only aligns your efforts with the company's needs but also equips you with the insight to proactively address challenges and opportunities in a manner that resonates with the CEO's overarching goals.

  2. Immerse in Business and Industry Dynamics: Gain a deep understanding of the company’s business model, products, services, and industry nuances. Ideally, you can begin this exploration before you even start your role. Familiarize yourself with the legal and regulatory framework specific to the industry and identify both the competitive edges and challenges your company may face.  Ask thoughtful questions and try to get multiple perspectives.  This principle extends beyond mere industry knowledge. Financial acumen is an indispensable part of your toolkit as a GC. Understand the financial workings of your organization, from revenue streams to cost structures. Being financially literate empowers you to provide legal advice that's not just legally sound but also financially savvy, aligning legal strategy with business objectives.

  3. Foster Key Relationships: Begin building strong relationships with team members, other departments, and key stakeholders. Networking within the company helps in understanding various perspectives and facilitates collaborative problem-solving. The goal is to become a trusted advisor, not just a legal expert. Trust is the cornerstone of effective collaboration. When people trust you, they are more likely to bring issues to your attention early on, allowing for proactive rather than reactive legal guidance. Finally, understanding how things get done and how decisions are made in your organization is crucial. Remember, 'Culture is King.' It's imperative to grasp not just the overarching company culture but also the nuanced micro- and sub-cultures within different teams or departments. This cultural awareness will enable you to tailor your approach and advice in a way that resonates and is effective within the unique dynamics of your organization.

As you set off on your General Counsel career, remember that while the road may seem daunting, the destination is immensely rewarding. In this role, you're not only a legal advisor, but a pivotal part of an organization's growth and success. Embrace the challenges, for they are opportunities to make a meaningful impact.

Good luck and may your tenure as a General Counsel be as fulfilling as it is influential!

Deborah Solmor

Founder, Ready Set GC



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