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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

April 29, 2016
Question

I’m a GC and would rather be a #2 lawyer in a public or private company. What factors will influence my ability to make the switch?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

For many lawyers, achieving the goal of “General Counsel” is grabbing one of the profession’s brassiest of rings. For those aiming for this target, the desire for and attraction to the position is often based on assumption, perception, observation and education…but not on the first hand experience of performing the function. So those transitioning to GC for the first time experience a learning curve at various verticals – and discover a great deal about the realities of this executive profile.

Being a GC is a tough job. And despite what a striving lawyer may believe…it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Along with the great virtues that come with the role, there can be some tough challenges too – challenges that can wear down even the most resilient lawyer. It sounds like you’ve had your fair share of headaches as a GC and are ready to shift to a new gear. Is it doable? Yes. But like every professional seeking a new position, the difficulty you’ll face will depend on a few variables. For your situation, they include:

Your Tenure As a GC.

The longer you’ve been in the top spot, the more challenging it may be to convince some employers that you’re no longer interested in leading the department. But on the positive side, tenure could fit in nicely to your messaging of “been there, done that”. Lawyers with a shorter GC term won’t receive as much scrutiny on motive.

Your Seniority.

The more senior you are, the harder it will be to compete for mid to “senior” level opportunities (i.e. 10 – 15 years) which tends to be the seniority benchmark for #2 lawyers in some companies. That’s true of any senior lawyer – GC or not. With this said, large public companies are more open to and will hire lawyers with 15-20+ years of experience, particularly in Deputy and VP roles.

The Size of Your Current Company.

The smaller the company (public or private), the easier it will be to convince an employer that you’re not interested in the top spot – like a small company GC seeking a senior position in a large public company or very hot start-up.

Whether Your Current Company Is Publicly-Traded or Private.

Private company GCs tend to have a slightly easier go of it when moving from #1 to #2. Why? Most have strong commercial backgrounds, which is in exceptionally high demand today. In addition, their legal teams are smaller so they aren’t just managing; they are blocking and tackling on the day-to-day work. Finally, seniority and official title can vary more in a private company – making the shift potentially more palatable for employers.

Your Substantive Expertise.

The depth and breadth of your substantive expertise will influence the type and number of opportunities from which you’ll have to choose. Example: Seasoned corporate securities/governance lawyers will be most marketable for non-GC positions at large public companies, but at private companies? Not so much. A background heavy in technology and commercial transactions as well as privacy will bode well for private companies as well as large public companies. A generalist may find options in small-mid sized public companies where legal departments are smaller and the practice is more fluid.

Your Official Title.

Chief Legal Officer, General Counsel, VP of Legal Affairs, Director Of Legal Affairs, Head of Legal. These are all common titles to represent the top lawyer in the company. Some of these titles make employers more skeptical than others.

Your Compensation Expectations And Flexibility.

One common assumption employers will make – is that you’re too expensive. And in many of these cases, your current salary will exceed what employers are offering for the title and role you seek. Understand these realities and determine the extent of your flexibility. Then include this talk thread in your interview conversation.

Your Message.

Even if all the stars and planets align for your candidacy, if your message about your transition is ineffective, your opportunities will be compromised. So take the time to create an honest and articulate message.

Transitioning out of a GC role can be done, but the endeavor is not challenge-free. Will some employers be unconvinced of your motives? Yes. Will some prove too fearful of your background to move forward? Yes. Will some believe you are overqualified? Yes. Not every opportunity will be the right one. And that’s ok. But by understanding the variables that will play a role in your success, you can prepare wisely for your new goal…and new brass ring.

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