Although there is no prescribed or set path to the general counsel (GC) role, there are proactive steps you can take to get to the ultimate seat. The most common path to becoming a GC is first to gain solid legal training at a large law firm, focusing on a broad corporate generalist practice. This skill set is valuable because you acquire experience to support the day-to-day operations of business, like sales and marketing. However, a litigation background is also valuable because it will help you to better spot and assess risks to the business.
From there, a good next step might be to join a smaller firm with greater opportunities to serve as the outside general counsel to clients, in the hopes that you might eventually be invited to join the client in-house. The other path is to go in-house and rise through the legal ranks, which might include switching companies to elevate in title and responsibility.
While many GCs attribute securing their positions to luck, there are measures within your control to best position yourself for the GC seat. You're already off to a good start if you're mindful of your career trajectory and have the intention, curiosity and motivation to make the GC role a professional reality.
Before joining a company, do your research—not only about the company itself, but also the GC's reputation. Is he/she known for being a good manager, mentor and a professional developer? Inquire also on whether there is a succession plan in place, in addition to a process for consistent reviews and feedback, so that you have opportunities to track growth for ascension.
The number one tip that I can provide—whether you're at a law firm or work in-house—is to say "yes" to additional responsibilities to expand your skill set. For example, when the company is hit with a big law suit—volunteer to jump in, or if there's the opportunity to cover for a maternity leave of the employment attorney, raise your hand! While you might have to tack this on with your current responsibilities, and might not be additionally compensated, it's terrific on-the-job-training and will make you a better rounded generalist candidate.
If you can't get on-the-job-training, look to external resources. Take a business class; the GC is a business partner, and it's essential to understand basic business terms and the ability to read a balance sheet, for example. If your present company does not afford the opportunity for interaction with the board of directors, look to other outlets for that experience. One way is to volunteer at other organizations, like local non-profits.
Of course, there are the valuable intangible characteristics that clients look for when they come to MLA for a GC search. Judgment, strong EQ, gravitas, responsiveness, integrity, problem-solving skills and the ability to remain calm under pressure, are some attribute highlights. Panelist, Marie Huber, GC of Agilent Technologies, Inc., advised generally to be "easy to work with." Flexibility and adaptability will get you greater traction as well.
A key takeaway from the GCs who spoke at our event is to ask for feedback on how you can improve. Get coaches and mentors to help get you there, perhaps in working on some of the intangible characteristics above.
Develop strong relationships and connections, including those outside of legal. John McFarland, GC of Synaptics, Inc., emphasized that "bankers are your friends." Brian Martin, GC of KLA Tencor, advised attendees to consult a trusted search professional. He described how he developed a relationship with our very own Marty Africa, MLA founder and partner, to periodically discuss his career trajectory, which he said has been invaluable to his career growth.
View more insights from Jay and others on the Major, Lindsey, & Africa blog, In Brief.
Jay Kim is a Managing Director with the San Francisco office of Major, Lindsey & Africa. She focuses on in-house searches at MLA, and has placed attorneys in both small private companies as well as Fortune 500 companies. The positions for which she recruits range from corporate counsel and IP counsel to General Counsel roles. She has also successfully partnered with MLA's Asia office on a General Counsel search for a NYSE-listed technology company in Seoul, Korea. Jay is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and litigated for five years, including experience at Gordon & Rees as an associate, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as a Legal Affairs Staff Attorney. After practicing law, she opened a small business and explored her creative side in music and fashion while traveling extensively. Jay is a member of the Korean Bar Association, Asian American Bar Association, and NAPABA.