What does the role look like - Head of Legal of company

In this piece, we focus on the Head of Legal or General Counsel role and consider some of the key priorities for people working at this level.

If you’re a new Head of Legal, or have ambitions to be, this will help you consider the key competencies you’ll need to develop and build on.

Head of Legal - the strategic dimension

Congratulations! You got the Head of Legal job. You may also be the General Counsel or report to the General Counsel if their role extends beyond the legal function.

Having reached this milestone, you now have a role with strategic and operational delivery dimensions. This means you’ll need to get to grips with issues such as:

Prioritising activity

Legal teams provide wide-ranging services for different parts of their organisations. Sometimes legal input is an essential factor in the business process or an inevitable by-product of doing business in a given sector. However, don’t assume every activity is a priority or needs to be carried out as it is currently.

A legal audit of the organisation will reveal where your resources are most needed, where they’re currently deployed and any gaps or overlaps. This will help you to build a map of legal need and activity across the business and to prioritise your resources.

Business planning

Having identified what the legal team is doing, ensure your resources are supporting the organisation’s key objectives and strategy. Work with your senior business colleagues to align your team’s objectives with those of the organisation.

If you’ve identified skills gaps, you’ll need to recruit, bring in external resource or train your own lawyers. You could also work with business units to increase their legal self-reliance.

Performance management

Whatever your structure and strategy, give your business colleagues the service they need (in terms of service delivery and human interaction quality as much as technical accuracy). Measure your team’s activity so you can demonstrate that it’s targeting the issues that matter most, such as the greatest legal risks and the highest overall business priorities.

There are many performance management models, with differing levels of complexity. Pick one that helps you identify your purpose, scope, strategy and measures. Performance management also relates to individuals, so implement a system that covers objective setting, targets, skills, career development, appraisals and salary review.

Also, find ways to measure and reward contribution and to create development opportunities through performing different roles and supporting different parts of the business. This is particularly important in flat management structures, which are very common in legal teams.

Measures and metrics

As part of your performance management plan, you’ll need to demonstrate your team’s areas of activities, its KPIs and the areas where it’s improving and excelling. You could use your organisation’s systems and dashboards for this. Or, if they’re not appropriate, find measures that tell the story you want to tell and show the contribution your team makes.

Remember that you need to get people to buy in to what you want to be measured on but their reasons for buying into that measurement approach may be different to yours. This is fine and even desirable, because they will care more about the results if there are reasons why they matter to them.

However it is important to ensure that you share a view on what movements in the measures mean, in terms of direction and scale of change, likely reasons for the change and normal responses to that change.


The legal team is not just a cost centre. It can make a valuable contribution to the business and culture of the organisation and impact the 'bottom line'. Good performance metrics will help show this, yet you may need to reinforce the message in other ways.

Integrate your team into the organisation’s reports and meetings cycles and ensure it’s involved in the planning stages of business initiatives and projects and not just when problems arise.

Forecasting, budgeting and resources

You’ll want to avoid surprises and have funds available to meet unplanned or unexpected legal activity - or a way to tap into wider corporate contingency or project funds.

If the business units have legal budgets, involve yourself in their business planning. If you’re the sole custodian of your organisation’s legal budget, work with your key business colleagues and external advisers to ensure you’ve covered all planned activity and risks and have a contingency for the unexpected.


The Head of Legal/General Counsel role is a major career milestone and a possible stepping stone to other senior legal roles or wider general management. When you’re new to the role, your in-tray will be brimming with legal and management matters. However, it’s a leadership role, so you'll need to focus on the strategic aspects. Set aside time to think about your approach and make a plan that covers all the main priorities.

Please read the following commentary from Anthony Inglese.

I like the easy-to-read style,  the useful intro and the simple key takeaway.

This must be the most significant note in the series, because everything flows from a proper understanding of the role of the Head of Legal.  

The main points in the note cover most of the ground succinctly and helpfully. What I believe is missing is an opening statement that as Head of Legal you are accountable for the provision of legal advice to your organisation.  Much else follows from this.  

Here are some other points on the article:-

  • It may be worth advising new Heads of Legal to seize the opportunity of their being new in order to seek and act on feedback from internal customers about the quality of service provide by the legal team to help you form your strategy and business plan for the legal function.
  • Business planning is indeed important, as the article  says, but a prior requirement is a strategy for the provision of legal services to the organisation; the business plan, performance measures fall out of the strategy (“where do we want to get to, how are we going to get there”).
  • It is true that “your client is the business as a whole” but that is not of course an excuse for giving a cavalier or second-rate service to individual colleagues within the organisation.
  • Further advice to new Heads of Legal:  use your team, don’t try to do it all yourself.
  • Measures and metrics: I am certain that this is also dealt with elsewhere, but I  disagree with  the suggestion that the main reason for “measures and metrics” is “to demonstrate” or to “tell a story” to the wider organisation. I agree that this is a reason but it is not the main reason. The main reason is to help you run the legal business.
  • The final point wisely recommends Heads of Legal to work with key business colleagues and external advisers.  I would go further and recommend instituting a series of regular “Keeping in Touch” meetings with key people so that you can head problems off rather than wait until an issue arises and then try to get a meeting with a busy person.
  • The “key takeaway” could be read literally as advice to shut yourself away from everyone while you think. Of course, during this period you will be consulting other colleagues, including your legal team, and perhaps bouncing ideas off them, as part of the process of formulating your strategy and plan and carrying people along with you.