Why do GC’s never become CEO’s?

Neil Willson

Head of Consulting

Apart from a handful of exceptions, Group General Counsel is normally the final title in the in-house lawyer’s glittering career.

Other members of the Board such as the COO or CFO are often in with a shot at the CEO’s job but the GC is seldom seen as a contender. There are a multitude of possible explanations for this but here are a few observations that may be pertinent.

#1 - Lawyers are not that Commercial

Now I know this comment will set the cat amongst the pigeons!

Most lawyers like to think of themselves as highly commercial and they are…as far as liability and risk go. However, this is not the same as a deep understanding of cost base, revenue, margin or the how and why of winning customers. There are few lawyers with this grasp of business fundamentals.

To be fair, lawyers do not have that much opportunity for real business exposure given their career structure.

Lawyers generally start in private practice where the business model is very simple – you bill for the hours that you work. That billing pays for your salary, the costs of running the firm and Partner profits. Mentally, many lawyers don’t get much further than that in terms of business management, particularly if they never reach senior management in a law firm because they’ve already moved in-house.

#2 - Lawyers are Objective

Don’t get me wrong, objectivity is a great skill in business. However, many lawyers become programmed over their career to produce legal advice considering multiple options. The impact of this is that lawyers are not used to personally committing to a course of action.

Lawyers can often seem distanced from the debate in the room. This makes it easier for others to involve the in-house lawyer only in legal matters, rather than the wider discussions about the business.

Lawyers are used to presenting their objective advice to clients for the client to make the decision. When you combine this with a natural tendency towards risk aversion, lawyers are often uncomfortable making decisions which affect the business.

#3 - Lawyers Struggle with Leadership

Comparative to other industries, lawyers don’t normally get the opportunity to manage large numbers of staff early on in their career.

First line management experiences are often combined with a heavy personal workload without time set aside for people management. Most lawyers have not received much in the way of training when it comes to line management.

Later on in their careers when managing larger numbers of staff, some assume that if their staff are qualified and of a certain PQE level that they don’t really need managing anyway.

Whilst some people have a natural aptitude for leadership, for those that don’t and need to learn, experience managing people is a key foundation.

If you are able to motivate, persuade and inspire such that your staff buy in to you as a person, then you are likely developing the sort of skills needed to lead an organisation.

Overall, I think it’s a shame that GC’s – with their huge amounts of brain power – do not get more opportunities to lead the wider business.

I know there are GC’s out there who are natural leaders and have an entrepreneurial streak – they do exist! However, it feels like the sins of the many are visited on these few when it comes to the ultimate career progression.

So what’s the solution? I’m interested to receive comments from in-house lawyers on what needs to change in order that General Counsel is not the final title in someone’s career.

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