Mentors & Roller Coasters. Also not taught in General Counsel School

You can’t continue working where you are right now, you’re not made for that. It’s just not challenging enough for you. It’s time for you to move back in house as either a GC in a smaller company or in charge of a region as part of a bigger team.” Over the next two hours Tom Kilroy gave me the guidance and understanding I’d need to implement his simply said two sentences.

Tom and I had met once or twice professionally prior to this “career meeting” and I invitedhim to talk with me about the next steps in my career. He would undoubtedly be objective enough and certainly further along his career path than I was! The shock was that Tom opened with those sentences, not concluded with them. Seeking advice and guidance from a lawyer further up the career ladder than you are is also not taught in General Counsel School.

It can be easy enough to stumble along in your career taking the next “exciting career opportunity for the next level” as presented by enthusiastic recruitment agents. But to get where you want to requires an assessment of the skills that you have, the skills that you need, how you’re going to get them and from where. Tom laid it out for me in three simple steps.

First, make a two column career checklist. In one column describe the type of role that you’re after. Mine included things like:

  • Fast paced & busy.
  • Work with senior management and board.
  • Responsibility for region/area/business line/function/projects.
  • Autonomy.
  • Wide range of responsibilities (drafting negotiating advisory strategy), varied.
  • Co Sec/Board assistance.

In the other column set out the type of company that you want to work for, mine included:

  • Tech (essential) Software (Very Desirable) Financial Services (Desirable).
  • Minimum 5-7 years trading history.
  • Strong leadership.
  • Growing company.
  • Not a punch-clock mentality.

Second, create a competencies matrix which sets out your skills & competencies attained vs skills & competencies required in the two key areas of growth and risk. Growth is what your CEO is interested in and risk is what your board cares about. As general counsel you need to balance both. I also added a third category called soft skills which addressed things like leadership, management style and communication which helped to round out all areas I needed to work on.

Third, write down all the things for which a corporate counsel is responsible and from that build a plan for how you would manage your own legal department. Going into interview, particularly later rounds, with a plan for the department may just give you the edge of other candidates who simply ‘interview’. It will also give you your plan for day one should you be hired.

I have also been fortunate enough to get to spend time with Paul Gilbert who spends his life working with corporate counsel from big companies all over the world. Paul in his ever so calm and casual way asked me how I was getting on in my new job.

He was unperturbed with the answer that some days you’re on top of the world and on others you appear to have forgotten everything that you have ever learned – such a roller coaster. “That’s normal” Paul said.  It bears repeating – “that’s normal”. He continued “lawyers all over the world experience the same roller coaster.”  They don’t teach you that in General Counsel School either.

This is the last in the “Not taught at General Counsel School series”.

Published by Brett

Brett is an experienced lawyer and business executive who focuses on commercial outcomes. He has worked across three sectors in England & Australia advising and leading initiatives in digital, media and technology

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