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The top lawyer wears many hats – a generalist in a specialist’s age

Robert Half Legal has a pithy comment in a recent release that contrasts generalist skills with the legal specialization rampant in our day. “Today’s GC wears many hats — legal advisor to the board of directors and Chief Executive Officer, savvy business strategist, knowledgeable interpreter of regulations and statutes, risk assessment expert, as well as visionary and manager of outside counsel. Despite the growth of specialization in legal practice, a GC has to be a generalist.”

This blogger must note one other GC hat: manager of the legal function. I like the quote because it underscores how difficult it is for a general counsel to don all the hats – Bartholomew-like, particularly the high-tops of “savvy business strategist” and “visionary.” To be an accomplished multi-hat GC is a rare feat and my hat’s off to those few.

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One response to “The top lawyer wears many hats – a generalist in a specialist’s age”

  1. Amanda Nelson says:

    I agree with previous comment that the GC of any corporation has to be a geneeralist but first and foremost, he has to be a “Leader”. Friedman and Evan Stewart in their article “The Corporate Executive’s Guide to the Role of the General Counsel” (ACCA 2000) summarise the role of the General Counsel as “… manager of a major set of risks faced by … corporations. … manager the corporation’s [internal and external] legal costs” and go on to talk about how the General Counsel is also responsible for being a senior adviser to an organisation’s executives, needs to have a thorough understanding of the company, it’s people, objectives, policies and problems as well as having legal experience, good analytical skills and judgement.
    What Friedman and Stewart fail to talk about (and I think, is critical to this role) is the General Counsel as Leader. For me, the General Counsel of any company needs to have the respect of his lawyers, is able to demonstrate an understanding of the challenges that his teams face and is able not only to advise the executives of the company, but support and advise the people who follow him. I think this theory is clearly supported by David Maister in “True Professionalism” where he discusses how people will follow if they believe you (in this case, the General Counsel) hold the same values as they do and are striving for the same goals. Maister also points out that a leader’s job is to “influence and motivate”. In an organisations where legal staff are globally disparate, this can prove challenging and the General Counsel, I think, needs to be prepared to go the extra distance to be “seen” by his people. What this does is build relationships and enables the General Counsel to gently reinforce organisational goals as well as understand the sometimes extreme challenges that his people face in their jobs. Most importantly though, such effort shows support and when you’re in a role which can sometimes grind you down because you’re the in-house lawyer who has to say “no” a lot, then this show of solidarity can be very powerful.