Press Releases

ARLINGTON, Va., May 27, 2020

Gartner Says General Counsel Mostly Don’t Meet Executive Expectations

Regardless of Their Title, just 8% of General Counsel Carry Out a Truly Executive Role, and Company Performance Suffers as a Result

Many general counsel (GC) are not meeting executive expectations and moreover, most are not performing their desired role, according to Gartner, Inc. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic disruption means the organizations need GC advice at the executive level more than ever.

When polled by Gartner, 46% of GC said their ideal role was as a corporate executive. However, just 8% carry out this role. Instead, a majority of GC (59%) spend their time as lead attorneys, performing tactical work and providing legal guidance (see Figure 1).

As a result, many GC say they are not meeting executive expectations or effectively supporting the board. Less than half believe they play a significant role in identifying and managing emerging issues, providing CEO support, or participating in executive corporate initiatives. Less than a quarter feel they play a significant part in establishing company strategy. 

Figure 1: Role of the General Counsel

GC Effectiveness
Gartner defines GC personal effectiveness as the achievement of personal objectives, sufficient influence with CxOs and significant contribution to firm outcomes. “Achieving these three components at least means you’ve done your job, have the ability to sway decisions when necessary, and help the company prosper,said Abbott Martin, vice president, research, in the Gartner Legal and Compliance practice. “Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 GC meet this standard of effectiveness. This is concerning in an environment where many are looking to the GC for leadership.”

Gartner experts have identified 5 behaviors that separate personally effective GC from the rest:

1) Carve Out an Executive Role
“The most effective GC spend 52% more time on strategy and 42% more time providing business guidance than their peers,” said Mr. Martin. “They achieve this by having intentional conversations with the CEO and the board about their highest value role and the corporate decisions that most benefit from GC involvement.”

GC must do their best to avoid becoming bogged down in the more tactical nature of day-to-day legal work and instead use the time to provide guidance to executives at the highest level.

2) Ensure Enterprise Risk Governance
One of the basic challenges facing companies is that accelerating business change and the increasing speed of risks makes it hard for companies to effectively govern their exposures. In short, new business models and technologies allow organizational scale and decision-making that does not map well to most companies’ regulatory and control environment. It is less clear today which risks to take, who owns a particular risk, and if the company should manage it at the enterprise or local level.

“The most effective GC address this challenge head on by ensuring a consensus risk appetite, clarifying the corporate owners of risk and determining the level at which the risk should be addressed,” Mr. Martin said. “This is about proactively addressing the company’s risk exposures — whether legal or not.”

3) Scope Client Need, Don’t Focus on Business Partner Satisfaction
GC that prioritize pleasing business partners spend less of their time on corporate priorities, are less personally effective and, have less effective executive relationships. GC that understand business partner challenges can increase personal effectiveness by 39%, and agreeing on client service plans can increase effectiveness by 21%.

“The best GC ensure that their departments understand core strategic priorities of business partners and use that to pressure test legal support on projects and force partners to make resource trade-offs,” Mr. Martin said. “GC must understand client goals without relinquishing control of the path to reach them.”

4) Own Their “Priority-Time” Cycle
The average GC is spending between a quarter and a third or their time in ways they don’t need to. This takes many forms, such as doing work someone else should have done, being in meeting where their involvement was unnecessary, or where their planned schedule is interrupted for something unplanned.

“Personally effective GC are ruthless about their time management and as a result have 27 fewer ‘wasted’ days a year,” said Mr. Martin. “Simple behaviors can make a dramatic difference in time management. For example, simply announcing your priorities reduces interruptions and empowers staff. GC should also audit their schedules to make it aligns with their priories.”

5) Invest for Legal Scale
Legal productivity is stagnating. Seventy-eight percent of GC felt legal speed had stayed the same or decreased in the past two years. Eighty-one percent felt that legal cost as a percent of company revenue increased or stayed the same in that period. Personally effective GC are nearly twice as likely to proactively request more resources for their department. Succeeding in this will create bandwidth to focus on giving effective executive guidance.

Gartner clients can view the report Assessing GC Performance: Lessons From 2019 for more details.

Non-clients can learn more by registering for the complimentary webinar on June 3, 2020 at 10am U.S. Eastern time: Attributes of an Effective General Counsel or can also subscribe now for priority access to Gartner’s new report, 5 Things the Best General Counsel Do Differently.

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