Necessary skills and experiences to be effective

What skills, behaviours and tools do you need to excel in your new General Counsel role?

As General Counsel and head of a function, you're in the spotlight more than ever now. 

This article looks as some of the practical steps you can adopt in managing the relationship with the organisation, managing your team and managing yourself to help you build a suite of portable skills that you can hone and develop throughout your career.

No pressure!

As a new General Counsel, you’ll have a wide range of responsibilities and your in tray will be full with issues needing your attention. Depending on the business of your organisation, some of the areas you're likely to be involved in include:

  • Contracts and deals;
  • IP and brand information;
  • Risk management;
  • Governance, compliance and regulation;
  • Disputes and litigation;
  • Employment;
  • The management of external counsel;
  • Your departmental budget;
  • Performance management, targets and KPIs; and
  • Training and education.

Unless you're a sole lawyer, you'll manage a department and, most likely, be a member of the executive or senior management team. You'll probably report to the board as well as the CEO or another executive director.

You'll be expected to understand the business of the organisation and the sector it operates in, be a good lawyer and manager, deliver a first class service, add value and innovate!

The good news is that you can learn and develop all the skills you need to be successful in your new role.

Managing your relationship with the organisation

Being a successful General Counsel will require you to adapt to being a business leader, as well as a lawyer. You'll need to understand how the organisation and its business works, its financial structure, how it's affected by the regulatory and political framework, and the key risks it faces.

Unless you’ve been appointed from within, the chances are you won’t have this knowledge when you start your new role. Yet without it, you'll struggle to be taken seriously and build credibility with your senior colleagues. Follow these steps to make your voice heard:-

  • Define your purpose
    Make sure you're clear about what your role is and that of your team. You need to understand what’s expected of you and, particularly, where you can add value in providing legal (and perhaps other) services to the organisation.
  • Adopt strategic alignment
    This means making sure your personal and team objectives compliment those of the organisation. Ensure you're part of the annual planning and budget setting process to align your objectives and ensure that budgets factor in the cost of legal work necessary to support those objectives.
  • Prioritise
    You first need to be clear about where your team is spending its time. Second, how does this map against your objective of supporting the organisation's key activities and managing its most important risks?

    How you set about this will depend on the size and scope of the organisation and the role of your team, ranging from a full legal audit, perhaps using external consultants (if you can secure the budget) to using a simple analysis tool such as an "Urgent and Important Matrix". But the aim is to understand where you should focus resources, perhaps by dropping some less urgent work to free up resource elsewhere.
  • Use a good performance management system
    While it may not be possible to fully measure the contribution of the legal team to the organisation, it is important to embrace the need to measure what you do and to find ways to report this to senior colleagues. Your reports shouldn't just highlight activity but also need to show the value your team is adding in supporting key business objectives and targets and that that contribution is valued by your 'clients'.

    There are various performance management systems of differing complexity available. Adopt one that uses measures to explain, in a manner your senior colleagues will understand, what you do, how it's measured and how it benefits the business. You may also need different metrics to tailor this information for different audiences in the organisation.
  • Learn project management
    Many organisations use multi-disciplinary project teams to meet their business goals. You and your team can play an important role as members of project boards and teams. It enables you to be at the heart of business activity and to wield influence without having to wait for colleagues to approach you only when they think there's a legal issue. Understanding how projects are structured, costed and delivered will help you and your team make an impact beyond giving reactive legal advice.

Managing your team

Whether or not you've previously managed a team, you’re now seen as a business leader and your team will look to you to set an example. How you conduct yourself can be surprisingly influential on your team and others. Here are seven strategies for dealing with some of the challenges you’ll face in managing a professional team:

  • Be confident
    Know your strengths and focus on them. Be clear about why people should follow you. Believe in your own abilities before asking others to.
  • Keep it simple
    However many new management systems you learn about, remember that leadership relies on human characteristics such as trust, integrity, clarity, competence and compassion. When implementing new strategies and ways of doing things, don't assume people won't understand the reasons, but explain these changes in a way they’ll understand. Carry your people with you.
  • Trust and support your team
    Manage the distractions (including from you) that prevent your team from doing their work. Lead by example in terms of punctuality, respect and challenging norms and assumptions. Challenge people to get better at what they do by giving honest feedback, delegating tasks that stretch your best performers and encouraging people to put forward ideas for change. Create a mentoring environment.
  • Focus on learning and development
    Your value is linked to the effectiveness of your team. Good General Counsel don't lead poor teams. They identify skills and aptitudes and plug gaps. Building a culture of learning and of developing core legal, business and personal skills will serve you and the organisation well. Don't skimp on L&D when time and budgets are tight.
  • Deal with tensions and negativity
    Promote creative tension by encouraging diversity in ideas and problem solving. Create an environment of involvement and inclusive respect. At the same time, remove negativity by tackling obstacles to efficiency and challenging negative behaviours. In times of change adopt new methods early yourself and find champions to model them in your team.
  • Tolerate mistakes, promote risk and innovation
    Avoid creating an atmosphere where people are afraid to discuss and challenge ways of doing things. Foster a collegiate environment where they can air concerns and fears openly and constructively.

    Lawyers are seen as risk averse, which may be appropriate when advising on a business initiative. But don't dampen risk-taking where it's less critical or necessary for innovation. Just because things have always been done a particular way doesn't make it right. Let people suggest and experiment with different approaches where if it may improve efficiency.
  • Share successes.
    Use performance measures that show the business where your team is improving and succeeding. If the team or individual members have hit targets or performed in other ways worthy of praise, make sure that that success is known about and celebrated. In a role focused on problem-solving, it's important to measure and trumpet achievement. Don't hide the successes.

Managing yourself

While building your relationship with the business and managing your team, don't overlook your own needs. Good leadership requires excellent interpersonal skills and personal management. Examples include:

  • Vision
    Think about your personal leadership goals and vision by articulating your values and career objectives. Be clear about what kind of leader you want to be and what impact you want to make. Commit to these targets by writing them down.
  • Personal development
    Take advantage of any available mentoring and/or coaching programmes. A mentor, particularly someone who has experience of similar challenges, can offer great support. Similarly, an executive coach can be a sounding board for your plans and ambitions and offer support in stressful and challenging times.

    If your organisation doesn't have a formal programme you could find a mentor and coach through your network or a professional group or association. Consider also, in this context, your professional CPD needs and requirements.
  • Energy management
    Maintain your energy levels by taking breaks, minimising interruptions, delegating and focusing on your strengths. Don't ignore your faults but don't forget what got you the job in the first place.
  • Productivity
    Increase your productivity by prioritising and scheduling time for those important, but often less pressing, things like thinking creatively and strengthening important business relationships.
  • The helicopter view
    In the hurly-burly of the day job it’s easy to get sucked into the routine. However, as a senior leader, you need time for strategic thinking and planning. There's comfort in getting stuck into what you know but don't forget to look at the whole picture. This is important so make time for it.
  • Thought leadership
    Establish a unique perspective both inside and outside the organisation. You have the advantage of seeing across the whole organisation so use this business intelligence to support your senior colleagues and make a unique contribution. Build your industry, sector and professional profile by writing and presenting on topical and emerging issues.


To be an effective General Counsel you need to manage your role in the organisation, manage your team and yourself. You’ll need a combination of practical business tools, legal knowledge, leadership skills and emotional intelligence. They’re all vitally important and will be key to your career development and success.