For the majority of lawyers working as an in-house legal counsel, their ultimate career goal is likely to become a General Counsel. However, nowadays an in-house career can be highly, diversified and specified, which means the pursuit of a head of legal role is no longer the only path to follow. Senior specialists in transactions, regulatory/compliance and IP are equally respected and, moreover, in demand. Nonetheless, for a generalist in-house counsel, a head of legal role often remains the most attractive and symbolic career landmark. In this article Shawn Chen points out some of the facts to consider before moving forward into such a leadership role.
Are you a commanding person?
In other words, do you desire leadership experience as much as you do your meals? The head of legal has to take the lead, which requires a very demanding, proactive and disciplinary personality. Moreover leadership roles in any function of a conglomerate take time to cultivate and passion to achieve; you have to be highly driven and see failure as a complete catastrophe. The responsibilities in such a leadership role are massive. You have to really want it in order to be able to not only land the position but also succeed in it.
Do you have the background and experience?
The requirements in terms of education and background for in-house counsel are currently becoming more diversified in the PRC legal market, allowing more candidates without a fancy legal education to be in a better position when job hunting. Yet in most of the cases, law practice still remains an elite industry – the quality of the law school and/or the law firm training can still determine the ceiling of a career. Businesses continue to be selective when picking the right leader for their in-house legal support.
Does taking over a leader role at an early stage help the future career?
We’ve observed many cases where attorneys with 7 or 8 years’ legal experience, working very independently or even a leader of the team, look to take on a head of legal role. Many of them can show they have the practical experience, but perhaps do not have the gravitas to lead. To put one of these lawyers in a legal head role with limited commercial and leadership experience can mean to put them in a position with little ability to influence. Most of the business stakeholders and decision makers in these situations are unlikely to be the attorneys’ peers. In a commercial environment, they might make sure that they exploit the legal head’s bottom line (if any) to secure their own best interest. The young lawyer would struggle to cultivate the ability to lead. The issue we see then when this level of lawyer considers a head of legal role is that any potential employer is often concerned the candidate might not be a team player or a competent leader for a sophisticated team with senior legal counsels. In these cases the lawyer still wants a role with independence but a head of legal role may be out of their reach due to their lack of leadership experience. Therefore we very often seen these lawyers become trapped in a sole counsel position or part of a very small team.
Do you have the ability to solve problems by influencing?
Successful heads of legal prioritise giving advice thoroughly influencing. “If the problem can be tackled by having lunch together, don’t bother drafting a long memo.” A head of legal needs the ability to drive co-counsels and a team in the direction required by the business. Professional advice from a head of legal is always to best serve the business; therefore a lawyer in this role is a leader of the business with legal skills. To be the best head of legal a lawyer needs to be commercial as well as a “people person”.
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