The role of General Counsel – resilience required

To be an effective business partner, the General Counsel needs a wide range of technical legal skills and personal qualities. One of these qualities is resilience, which we look at in this article.

Tackling everything that the modern workplace can throw at you is a real challenge if you’re the GC. You’re juggling multiple projects yet must always be ready to fend off a legal crisis or add value to a new initiative. And the chances are you work in near isolation. You need resilience.

Build your resilience

As a GC, you need to both anticipate and respond to issues while all the time spreading yourself seamlessly across a multitude of projects. 

You need good judgment that adds value or averts a murky fate, a flair for communicating with your board and the skills to manage a team that builds relationships with other business stakeholders - You would be forgiven for thinking that most GCs hide octopus-like tentacles under their clothing. 

It’s a rewarding role, but it asks hard, testing questions. The competing demands and challenges of the role can affect your perception of the organisation as a whole and how your value is measured. And this can be counterproductive to your mindset. 

This is why resilience is a key personal quality for a GC. 

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently co-authored a book with psychologist Adam Grant called Option B: Facing adversity, building resilience and finding joy. In it, Sandberg shares what she learned after the unexpected death of her husband. A central theme of the book is the importance of resilience as a mental muscle that can be built up over time. 

Resilience is a powerful tool that helps us to recover quickly from difficulties. It helps us to stay strong in the face of adversity and gives us the elasticity we need to spring back into shape when we’re pulled in different directions. Like all muscles, the more resilience is exercised, the more pressure it can take - and the more we can ask of it. 

Here are five great ways to build your resilience:

Understand how valuable you are

We all enjoy being recognised and thanked for our work. However, studies show that the real benefit lies in really understanding how we’ve helped others. 

As you look up from the mountain of work in front of you, it may be difficult to see the positive impact you’re having on your organisation. GCs and in-house lawyers are embedded across many functions within their organisations, so take time to connect the dots between what you and your team are doing and the value of that work to your employer. 

Something easy for you may be hard for a colleague. Mapping out operational processes, for example, can be bewildering for someone unfamiliar with this type of task and take up many hours of their time, perhaps even intruding on their personal life. With the help of someone experienced in this work, the outcomes for both the people involved and the task itself can be greatly improved. 

Reflecting on your contributions is a useful management habit as it can help you sell the value of your team to the organisation. It can also strengthen your focus and help you put more energy into your role. 

Remember that perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Sometimes good is good enough and minimum standards are acceptable. This is a hard lesson for lawyers to learn, but it’s a crucial element in the exercise of self-compassion. Attention to detail can lead to perfectionism, which can cost you your momentum. Fast growing businesses in particular can rarely accommodate perfectionism as their aims and needs are constantly changing. You’ll need to make judgment calls as to when it’s safe to settle for simply ‘good’ as there will still be times when higher standards are necessary. 

However, to be resilient to the many competing pressures of being in-house, it’s necessary to learn when good is good enough. It will buy you breathing space and time to organise yourself. And if you need to, you can usually finesse a piece of work in a quieter moment later on. 

Speak your truth

Organisations and their board rooms could provide an ideal setting for a Sir David Attenborough documentary. They all have their individual microclimates and dynamics specific to the personalities involved. There’s a special skill to navigating these environments but it’s important not to get caught up in thoughts of how you think others perceive you and how they want you to act. GCs are often described as the organisation’s moral compass, so to be successful, it’s vital to be comfortable with who you are and to speak your own truth. 

Weigh up the challenges

Many people who work in-house face ‘soft challenges.’ For example, you may deliver advice that is sound commercially and legally, but face a soft challenge to your advice such as: “You don’t understand my industry,” “Everyone else does it this way,” or “I’ve done it this way for five years and have never heard of this.” 

Of course, we should give ground and accept constructive challenges where we’re asking people to adopt new or different perspectives. However, sometimes comments like these can make us question our own judgment. We need to find a balance between identifying and accepting a constructive challenge and having confidence in our own expertise. This often requires inward reflection, but once you’re able to identify the constructive challenges and rebuff the soft ones, your relationships with your colleagues will improve. 

Stay connected and be authentic

 For various reasons, the GC’s existence can be a lonely one and isolation at work can affect your resilience. It’s important, therefore, to have a trusted network of peers (either internally or externally) who you can talk to and use as a sounding board for any concerns or problems. A good network can help you find creative solutions to your concerns that you may not have previously considered. It can also reassure you that others are experiencing similar difficulties to you - and this can help create a collective resolve to tackle problems. 

Remember, meaningful connections that are there when you need them are founded on authentic communication. GCs are known for their innate swan-like capabilities. On the surface there’s a calm and collected persona, while beneath the water level frantic paddling is taking place. It’s sometimes necessary to admit that you’re struggling and that you need the help and insights other people can provide. 

Not all stress is bad stress

You won’t build resilience by avoiding stress altogether. In fact, it has been shown that stress can motivate us, help us to perform at optimum level and maintain focus. However, when we’re pushed to our limits, resilience helps us to bounce back. The art is to find the sweet spot between the good and the bad. This comes with time, experience and the ability to manage the expectations others have of us.


Resilience is a key personal quality for the GC, who typically faces multiple simultaneous challenges, yet ploughs a lonely furrow in the workplace. To build your resilience, take stock of the value you provide your organisation, learn when to accept that good is preferable to perfect and always speak your own truth. Be ready to accept a constructive challenge to your advice yet know when to rebuff a soft one. Finally, build yourself a network of trusted likeminded people who share your challenge and concerns.