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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

March 1, 2018
Question

What is the right length of time for a GC to stay in his/her role at the same company? In today’s market, what are the main reasons GCs leave their jobs?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Many professionals view the role of General Counsel/Chief Legal Officer as the top legal spot in the in house world. It is a “goal achieved” – through years of hard work and career navigation. And it’s a legal position unique to any other…and is viewed as such by employers. So the market “rules” for GCs can be different compared to lawyers possessing other titles.

This includes judgments and consequences related to tenure in a role or an organization. When it comes to these issues, a GC with short stints at one or multiple employers will be subject to the same scrutiny as other in house lawyers in the market. Raising questions on the departure circumstances and potentially calling into question the quality of the candidacy. However, GCs receive far greater latitude than those of lower rank for a long tenure. Why? Because employers view the GC as a top company executive with no higher legal position to reach. They also see it as a role that entails a flow of evolving responsibilities and challenges. So the position won’t become stagnant, experience won’t get stale, skills will continue grow, contribution will be high…and the GC will remain challenged. In most instances this is true, which is why GC mobility in today’s market is quite low. So staying in the role for 10…even 15 years won’t raise many, if any eyebrows.

With the longevity consequences minimized, the “right length of time” to stay in the GC role at a company takes on a different analysis. Shifting the weight from market driven factors…to personal factors driven by the GCs own career desires. So what are the personal factors that help GCs determine the right time to move on? Below are the most common:

  • Desire to move to a bigger public company with higher revenue.
  • Desire to move from a private company to a public company.
  • Desire to move from a public company to a promising start-up company.
  • Desire to manage a larger legal department.
  • Desire to change industries.
  • Desire to join a company whose executives value the legal function more than their current employer.
  • Desire to report to a CEO.
  • Desire to join a company that is more successful.
  • Desire to join a company that is more ethical.
  • Desire to flee a toxic culture.
  • Desire to make more money.
  • No longer a desire to be a GC.
  • Desire to relocate.
  • Desire to retire.

In today’s legal market, GCs are not a highly mobile constituency. So their tenure in organizations tends to be much longer than other in house lawyers. But given the nature of the position and its perception among employers, GCs are less saddled with the negative assumptions that can accompany many years of service. Consequently, they are less beholden to market perception and are freer to determine the right length of time to stay…or leave.

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