Businesses thinking of hiring a leader to build and scale the legal function often go down the General Counsel (GC) route. But how do you know if it’s the role you need, where do you find the top candidates, and how do you test for the best talent? We answer all this and more below - keep reading to find out.
How do you know if you need to hire a General Counsel?
You’ll know you need to hire a GC when the legal work becomes difficult to manage alongside other responsibilities; too complicated to handle without the right expertise; or opens the business up to risk.
In the earlier stages of a business, legal work sits with the person responsible for ops at the business.
As the business scales, so does the work these employees need to do, and it becomes apparent that the business needs to hire a legal professional to handle incoming legal requests, alongside building legal infrastructure that will protect the business against risk.
Other points that would indicate the need for in-house resource include:
- Complexity of legal work - if your business operates in a high regulated industry, like finance or healthcare, you may consider hiring an in-house lawyer sooner rather than later, to handle regulatory and compliance work
- Variety of legal work - if your business is expanding into other territories, planning a funding round or M&A, or launching new products and services, then you may want to consider bringing in a lawyer to offer guidance on these huge projects
- Cost of outsourcing legal work - you’ll likely reach a point where hiring a lawyer in-house is more beneficial, and less costly, than outsourcing that work to external counsel
Is a General Counsel the right role for your team?
This depends on the kind of work they will be doing. If you’re looking for a lawyer to manage low-value contracts and oversee simple contract negotiations, then a GC will be overqualified for the role. This may result in disengagement with the work, and a higher chance they’ll end up leaving after a short period of time.
To make sure you’re hiring the most suitable person for the job, make sure you have answers to the following questions:
- What kind of work will that hire be doing? Will they be doing administrative work, or acting as a strategic partner to the business?
- What skills and capabilities do you consider a must-have for your legal hire, as opposed to a ‘nice-to-have’?
- What kind of expertise do you need? Are there any major projects or milestones coming up over the next few years that require certain legal skills?
- How do you anticipate the legal team growing over the next few years? Do you want to hire someone who can grow that team, and manage direct reports? If you’re looking to hire someone more junior, who will manage and train them?
This can help you identify the right level of expertise for your business.
Where to hire a General Counsel
You have three main options:
1. Use your network
You can turn to law firms that you've worked with in the past for candidates. If you're at a startup that, until that point, has been using a law firm, you could ask that law firm for recommendations based on similar clients of theirs. This could be an effective way to source top talent with relevant experience.
You can also post the job on LinkedIn, though the success of this approach will depend on the size and reach of your network.
2. Find a community
Reaching out to a community specifically for GCs and senior lawyers can be useful. One example is the Juro community of 800+ in-house lawyers and legal ops experts. For more information on Juro’s community and what you can expect from this exclusive group, go here.
There are plenty of groups that aim at tech lawyers, which can make reaching out to your ideal candidates much easier.
3. Use a specialist recruiter
The downside to this is that there aren’t that many specialist recruiters to choose from, especially when you’re looking at specific roles, so your options may be limited. But this can be an effective way to outsource the heavy lifting of sourcing talent.
How much does it cost to hire a General Counsel?
How to assess a General Counsel’s skills in an interview
It’s important to assess both hard and soft skills in the interview process.
Assessing hard skills
An effective way to do this is through written tasks. For example, you could set your GC the task of redlining part of your Master Services Agreement (MSA) and assess based on their approach to the task; are they highlighting every minor detail? Or are they prioritizing important points over nitpicking? Do they have strong attention to detail? Or are they haphazard in their redlining process?
Being able to identify their strengths and weaknesses in a contract markup can be an effective indicator of how they work, and whether they’d work well in your business. You can ask your current external counsel to help with the process of assessing quality of work and interviewing.
Assessing soft skills
Values interviews can be really useful when assessing soft skills. These are conversations between the candidate and other colleagues in the business, outside of the team the candidate will be joining. A General Counsel, for example, would speak with colleagues outside of legal.
These interviews allow employers to assess how well the candidate works with others, which is super important - there’s no point being the most talented lawyer in the business if you’re difficult to work with!
Another effective way to measure soft skills is to set a presentation task. This will help the business assess the candidate’s clarity, communication skills, and interpersonal skills.
How do you know which General Counsel to hire?
There are several factors that determine whether a General Counsel is the right fit for your business, such as growth mindset, experience, collaborative nature, and value-add.
- Growth mindset: in-house lawyers need to balance risk with growth, and an inability to do so will slow the business down - make sure you hire someone who is adaptable and ready for the unique challenges of working at a scaling company
- Experience: similar to the above, you can set yourself up for success by interviewing and assessing candidates with relevant experience. Someone who only has experience as a lawyer at a Magic Circle firm might not be the right fit for an in-house role at a venture capital backed startup
- Collaborative nature: in-house lawyers are strategic advisors to the wider business, and enablers of growth. This requires being able to collaborate with the wider business, and manage requests coming from all sides of the company. A collaborative nature is a must-have - in order to succeed, legal can’t live in a silo, detached from the rest of the business
- Value-fit: does the candidate align with your company values? Do they fit your company culture, but more importantly, can they add to it and influence it? Being able to work well with others and act as a representative of the business is key
How do you define success in the General Counsel’s role?
Establishing a 90-day plan with quantifiable outcomes can help set the General Counsel up for success, and provide accountability.
Being able to attribute metrics to the role and work in a data-driven way is also a good sign of a successful General Counsel; what are the contract turnaround times for commercial teams, for example? How many legal issues or queries were resolved in a month? What is the internal NPS of the legal team?
This removes the subjectivity and allows colleagues to objectively measure success of the legal function, which is really important.
Hiring a General Counsel to build and scale the legal function is an exciting stage of a company’s life. By understanding what you need from a legal leader, what they can offer, and how to measure success, you can ensure the GC hits the ground running from day one, and delivers value to the wider business.