How to Be a More Effective General Counsel

Changing key behaviors makes GC more effective and increases their influence and impact on the organization.

The general counsel (GC) is more important than ever. From playing a central role in coordinating COVID-19 response to reimagining the legal department to providing input on strategic plans, a GC who can set priorities, clarify actions and balance competing interests is vital for a company to execute effectively in today’s uncertain environment.

Unfortunately, few GC exert this level of influence. “Very few GC believe they play a significant role in identifying and managing emerging issues, providing CEO support or executing corporate initiatives,” says Abbott Martin, VP, Research, Gartner. “Most GC fail to have a noticeable impact on business objectives.”

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Only 19% of GC consider themselves personally effective, according to Gartner research. In the context of the GC role, personal effectiveness means achieving personal objectives, making a significant contribution to business outcomes and having influence with C-suite leaders. Simply providing high-quality legal services is a basic expectation for GC and doesn’t differentiate performance.

Most GC (73%) believe success means pleasing clients, but this can undermine GC performance and even weaken client relationships

What keeps GC from being personally effective is a large gap between aspiration and reality. They want to operate as corporate executives, but the majority (59%) act as lead attorneys, providing legal guidance and tactical support to the business. Only a fraction (8%) behave as corporate executives who have the power to sway critical executive decisions and drive enterprise success.

Gartner shares the traits of personal effectiveness for general counsel.

Make small changes to management behaviors

The good news is that by adopting certain behaviors — and eliminating others — GC can achieve the personal effectiveness they want. This doesn’t mean doing a radically different job; for most GC, it just means approaching their role differently and making small but essential tweaks to their management behaviors. 

For example, GC often get bogged down in day-to-day legal opinions and tactical work. And this is exactly what most executive teams will use them for, unless explicitly “trained” to think about them differently. To change this perception, GC should redefine their role and have deliberate conversations with executive leadership about the organization’s long-term strategic needs and where and how GC can provide the highest value.

Focus on understanding and addressing clients’ most significant needs and challenges

Client service is another area where a simple behavior shift can have a major impact. Most GC (73%) believe success means pleasing clients, but this can undermine GC performance and even weaken client relationships. Personal effectiveness drops 31% when GC fail to push back on client-suggested work or priorities directed solely at satisfying clients.

Business partners don’t want positive reinforcement so much as they seek partners who deliver positive outcomes. “Focus on understanding and addressing clients’ most significant needs and challenges instead of trying to please in every interaction,” says Martin.

As leaders at the center of most critical business activities, GC must provide guidance and decision frameworks to resolve uncertainty and reduce organizational complexity. Adopting personally effective behaviors enables GC to increase their impact on business performance and boost their stature in the organization.

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