Developing the Skills for being an outstanding General Counsel

Katie Cook


by Katie Cook

businesswoman-walking-in-the-mall_1163-594.jpgEssential Skills for a General Counsel

The Legal Talk Network has some fascinating podcasts. One recently was an interview of Mark Roellig, General Counsel of MassMutual with Legal Talk Network’s Randy Milch about what are the essential skills of an effective General Counsel and how you can go about obtaining and refining those skills - Skills for Success as a General Counsel.

Get the skills and knowledge you need

Roellig explains that being an exceptional General Counsel requires skills above and beyond those required and obtained in a law firm.  Here are some of the legal and non-legal skills you will need to be a successful General Counsel and some tips on how to get them.

Legal Skills

The areas of law over which Roellig believes lawyers seeking to be General Counsel should have an excellent command include the following:

  • Corporate and securities law
  • Corporate governance
  • Regulatory processes
  • Litigation
  • Class actions and investigations
  • Risk and dispute management
  • Executive compensation; and
  • Labour and employment matters

Command over these areas can be obtained while working within a law firm.  The other skills that you need which you can obtain at a law firm include the ability to write well and in general how to practice law.

Non-legal skills

The non-legal skills required for being a General Counsel include:

  1. Being able to apply general business knowledge to make good business decisions e.g. including the ability to understand how to budget and forecast expenses to decide where to allocate budget.  
  2. Being an excellent communicator - a lot of what you do as a General Counsel involves explaining complex concepts in very simple terms to people working within a business who are not legally trained and it is essential that you develop this skill
  3. Management skills are also integral.  To be an effective General Counsel you will need to learn the skill of managing and allocating work and understand the costs involved in hiring, letting go and managing employees. You will also need to be able to assemble and develop productive teams.

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How to get these skills?

So what is the best plan of action for gaining all the skills you need so that you can become a General Counsel? Well, Roellig suggests gaining the legal expertise you need first in private practice.  In this way, you can first obtain the legal skills you need.  Then you can move in-house to gain the other non-legal skills.

More specifically in relation to obtaining the non-legal skills he encourages being curious about the business of any company at which you work.  Ask where the company is going and observe all the relationships among those in the business.  Observe what works and what needs improvement. In his opinion, an MBA can be a valuable asset but so can fostering and exercising a natural curiosity about any business at which you work.  

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You can also work on honing the three skill areas Roellig lists as essential in other ways. An article in the Harvard Business Review  by Robert L. Katz entitled Skills of an Effective Administrator considers the ability to work well with others, be an effective group member and to be able to build a cooperative effort within the team he or she leads, i.e. communication and management skills, can be honed by participating in role plays of various management case studies.  The person in whom communication and management skills are highly developed is very self-aware, knows what his attitudes, assumptions and beliefs are about individuals and groups and usefulness and limits of these perceptions.  He or she can also very well explain to others in their “own language” what he or she is meaning.  Due to this a lot of case studies and role playing that is used to develop these skills is focused on making participants more self-aware and aware of others. There are several training organizations that provide this sort of role playing training e.g. Summit Training & Consulting Summit Training & Consulting .  There are also various self-awareness exercises you can do such as a personality or work style test e.g. based on the Enneagram or DiSC concepts.

Katz’ article in the HBR also considers that the ability to recognize the interrelationships and various factors involved in a scenario and take action which will achieve the maximum good for an organization, i.e. being able to make good business decisions, is one that can be developed through a good mentoring or coaching program.  He also suggests another way to get a good perspective for making good business decisions is to get experience working in different roles within an organization and even getting involved in special assignments for resolving interdepartmental problems.  If your current business or firm does not offer a mentoring program you could consider looking for one external to your organization. This article in Forbes Magazine by Kathy Caprino presents some interesting ideas for finding an ideal mentor - How to Find a Great Mentor -- First, Don't Ever Ask a Stranger.  If there are no special assignments within your organization seek out an organization within which you can become involved in your spare time as someone who routinely is required to solve organizational issues.  

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So there you have some thoughts on what skills are required for being an excellent General Counsel and some tips on how to obtain them.  We would love to hear your thoughts? Are you a General Counsel?  What skills and knowledge do you use day-to-day?  Which ones do you believe are the most important and how did you obtain them?

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About the author

Katie Cook

Katie Cook

Katie Cook is Director of Marketing, Communications and Legal Standards at ContractRoom. Originally from the east coast of Australia, she has a background as an Attorney having practiced in both public and private practice in Brisbane and Melbourne. Katie completed studies in journalism and is now combining her legal and writing skill sets in her role.

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