General Counsel 2023 – what will the role look like then?

A look at the potential for change in four areas within the GC’s job profile.

Paul Bentall on 02/05/18

As Mark Twain said, prediction is difficult, particularly when it involves the future. Yet the role of General Counsel (GC) has undergone such change over the past couple of decades that it’s tempting to speculate about what lies in store over the next five years or so. While five years is a short period, it may be enough to see whether some of the trends we see in motion today will develop in a way that has a real impact on the GC’s role.    


1. People

It’s safe to assume that the GC will continue to need to be a good lawyer with an excellent grounding in legal principles and ethics and detailed knowledge of the law and the legal framework affecting their own organisation and sector. They’ll also need to possess a range of skills that, while not peculiar to lawyers, are seen as a base requirement for those in, and aspiring to, senior and executive positions in organisations – business acumen, communication skills, being good delegators and collaborators, and having the ability to lead, including in times of rapid change. 

Many GCs manage other lawyers and non-lawyers. Their stock as a leader is determined, at least partly, by how well they manage. So, do they delegate well and is their team recognised for its learning and development culture? Is performance management built into their processes, and is the team’s reputation one of being smart, efficient, and collaborative and does it reflect equality and diversity objectives? 

If people management skills are so important, how do current and future GCs acquire them? Aren’t they largely learnt on the job? While it’s true, of course, that on the job learning is important and that many GCs will have acquired management experience before they apply for the role, here are three ways that ambitious lawyers can boost their skills in this respect:-

  • Management training. Many organisations run training programmes and coaching and mentoring schemes. Also, there are many external courses.
  • Project teams. Even if you have no line management responsibilities, your career development plan could include taking part in, or leading, departmental or wider projects that allow the opportunity to build and develop team and leadership skills. 
  • External management roles. Working in a voluntary role (say as a member of a charity board) can be an excellent way to learn these skills in a different environment.  

2. Leadership

While theories about what makes a great leader are pretty ubiquitous, we can say that any modern GC is expected to demonstrate those qualities generally associated with leading at a higher level. These may be described slightly differently in different roles but will generally include (however described) such attributes as challenging norms and being collaborative, engaging, confident and visionary and possessing excellent emotional intelligence.  

These skills are now seen as the norm by boards and senior management teams. So how will future GCs demonstrate leadership? Here are two suggestions:- 

  • Confident in their skills, they’ll be comfortable operating across, and having responsibility for (or ownership of) complimentary areas such as regulation, policy, compliance, risk, reputation management and government affairs as organisations increasingly look to GCs to apply their skills beyond the confines of the legal department. 
  • GCs need to be secure in their understanding of the role of the lawyer in the organisation – what it means and necessitates. This includes not just the need to provide an excellent legal service and be a ‘business-enabler’ but also to provide practical clarity in relation business integrity and ethical and legal standards, not least as these are likely to be increasingly important in relation to business reputation. 

3. Delivering legal services

No surprise that this will remain a key part of the GCs role. GCs know that they need to be ever more astute in the way they deliver services to the organisation. This has seen them focusing on managing costs, including of outside lawyers, prioritising and restructuring to better support key organisational goals, strengthening their skills base and using general business tools and techniques, for example in identifying and reporting on value and contribution.  
Here are four areas where GCs may need to plan for change or increasing demand:-

  • Education and self-help
    Particularly helping non-lawyer colleagues to identify and process some legal issues and sharing relevant knowledge. This is likely to increasingly be supported by technology in standardising process and reducing risk. 
  • Automation
    GCs are rarely early adopters of sophisticated (and expensive) automated systems, not least because of the difficulties in securing funding. But they will be looking for ways to simplify business process (where appropriate) and leverage and share knowledge. Expect Boards and CEOs to look to their GC for innovative options in providing a smart, efficient service.   
  • External Providers 
    GCs have an increasing range of providers available meet their outsourcing requirements – not just traditional law firms but ‘alternative’ sourcing providers, legal process outsourcers and specialist providers of tech solutions for particular activities. GCs are expected now to know the cost of the legal service and look for ways to maximise their spending. The trend requiring GCs to look at options beyond head count and external law firm costs is therefore likely to continue. 

GCs will also want solutions that are quick and easy to apply and, in relation to technology, can (where necessary) dovetail easily with existing processes and systems. This demand for more flexible and innovative systems, for example in the context of knowledge management, training, data analysis and reporting, may provide opportunities for external providers (including law firms) to work in partnership with in-house legal teams in providing these tools and business services. 

  • Structuring the legal team
    Traditionally, in-house teams have been staffed largely by qualified lawyers, many of whom will have trained and qualified in private practice. Other non-legal support such as for HR and IT has come from the organisation’s own teams. However if, as Richard Susskind has predicted, we see the rise of new legal roles, it will be interesting to see if this also affects the in-house sector. Here are five potential areas of change:-
  1. Increasing use by in-house teams of non-legal specialists and systems covering such as knowledge, data analysis and business processing. Larger teams may have the budgets to integrate these specialists into their own teams. For others the use of buy-in options may become more attractive. 
  2. Increasing specialisation in in-house legal roles as teams focus on core business areas.
  3. Increasing use of flexible resource in legal and non-legal functions to meet fluctuating demand and provide non-core expertise.
  4. The use of specialist external providers for business services as well as for legal services.
  5. The rise of the interim GC and group GC services.

4. Learning, Development and Visibility

Most in-house teams recruit from private practice, typically lawyers in early to mid-career. Some in-house teams already train their own lawyers and it will be interesting to see if that option becomes more attractive in the future. 

To succeed in an in-house role and certainly to achieve a leadership position requires excellent legal and people skills along with business acumen. Many past and current GCs have focused on developing these skills and have thereby set the benchmark for future GCs. Learning and development options are now widely available in many organisations. Expect future GCs to have these L&D strategies in mind:-

  • The importance of ensuring that they continue to learn and develop and that they are known for building and supporting a L&D culture in their teams.
  • Looking at varied L&D options in relation to their own development and for their aspiring leaders. This is likely to include wider business and leadership training both in the organisation and via external roles and positions.
  • A focus on developing emotional intelligence and personal skills, including presentation and communication.
  • Increasing use of coaching and mentoring support.
  • Increasing use of flexible career planning to support career and development goals, including beyond the organisation.
  • More emphasis on leaders and future legal leaders developing their ‘personal brand’.

Take Aways

  • Changes in the GC role are likely to be incremental over the next five years.
  • GCs will increasingly be expected to be astute and business savvy in how they deliver legal services.
  • They’ll use increasingly sophisticated tools to measure, report and plan.
  • GCs will be expected to have the skills to take responsibility for, or ownership of, complimentary functions.
  • Possessing wider business and personal skills will be expected. Good legal skills are a given.
  • Learning and development will be a central theme, never an afterthought.
  • GCs will be confident in their enhanced role and comfortable in voicing both legal and ethical solutions.   

Reference and reading materials:

Taught Leaders – The In-House Lawyer Autumn 2016
Inside the in-house counsel revolution – Ben Heineman April 25 2017
The Rise of the Super GC – Global Legal Post, The General Counsel Excellence Report 2017
Tomorrow’s Lawyers – Richard Susskind.
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