Meet The Unexpected New Boss of The C-Suite

Not so long ago, the role of General Counsel could be easily dismissed. “If you are looking back 30 years ago, a General Counsel and the in-house legal department was not robust, it was essentially a narrow and reactive role,” says Julie Brush a top legal recruiter who has placed hundreds of general counsel in the United States. “It was what you cannot-do type of role, and very siloed. GCs were not part of bigger business discussions,” she says.

However, fast-forward to today’s boardrooms and that has all changed. Today’s GCs are no longer a business backstop. In place of the traditional perception of the legal department as overly conservative or “non-business-minded”, general counsel in the United States have become central actors in corporations, shaping industries and playing a central part in the entire US economy.

The role of the General Counsel in the United States is revealed in a major new 30+ page report, The 2019 General Counsel Landscape (available for free pre-order) launched by LawGeex and the Association of General Counsel (ACC) on Tuesday (November 27). Based on analysis of 34,000 US General Counsel on professional social network, LinkedIn, alongside job listings and compensation surveys, the study reveals the secrets, the pay and expectations of the modern powerful GC — from the smallest organizations to the Fortune 500 where their annual pay reaches nearly $7 million.

In advance of the full findings of the report, here are 6 reasons the GC has become one of the mightiest figures in the C-Suite.

1. Central legal challenges are growing

The General Counsel strategic responsibilities are the core challenges businesses are struggling with on a daily basis: IP protection; piracy; corruption; privacy; security; environmental initiatives; powder kegs such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Brexit; antitrust probes; labor and employment scandals; cyber attacks; and rising regulation.

The legal thicket has grown thicker and thicker ever since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act inserted federal law deep into corporate governance 16 years ago. Running a financial business is much more complicated, while penalties for rule-breaking have grown harsher.

2. GCs stepping up to Strategic Leadership

In this new landscape, GCs are mitigating such threats while at the same time executing a mission as strategic profit-drivers.

The high-stakes and central role played by the modern GC is exemplified by General Counsel from Google, Facebook, and Twitter acting as spokespersons for the tech giants in congressional hearings into Russian meddling. Rather than facing narrow legal questions, top company legal chiefs, Google’s Kent Walker, Facebook’s Colin Strech, and Twitter’s Sean Edgett faced scrutiny about wider political and social “cataclysmic change” and what their companies were doing to address these challenges.

In another case, newly-installed Uber General Counsel Tony West has been brought in to establish the future direction at the ride-hailing giant. He has been given responsibility to “change the culture”, resolve the company’s accumulating legal issues, and manage what West says “could very well be the largest IPO in history.” To further underscore the forward-looking and strategic direction of the role, he has been tasked with a top-to-bottom safety review after one of the company’s autonomous vehicles hit a pedestrian, an investigation that could determine the future of a $7 trillion self-driving market.

3. GCs leading on world issues

Demonstrating a new world leadership role, Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker was promoted to senior vice president of global affairs to oversee policy, legal, trust and safety, and corporate philanthropy. Microsoft promoted former General Counsel Brad Smith to president, after his success in communicating the software giant’s message that is widely credited with transforming the company from a “bully” to a mature corporate citizen. Salesforce GC Amy Weaver, with the active support of CEO Mark Benioff, opposed a bill in Georgia that many believed would legalize discrimination against LGBT people (Weaver is seen here meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on female empowerment).

In another example, GCs at tech companies Foursquare, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Vimeo, Automattic, Etsy, Expa, and Shutterstock demonstrate this role as outspoken leaders and campaigners against the Federal Communications Commission over its decision to overturn net neutrality regulations.

4. Transformers of the Legal Profession

Today’s GC is also the lead orchestrator in transforming the $600 billion legal profession.

Faced with a business imperative to do “more with less,” GCs are advancing legal automation with record investment in technology to perform daily legal tasks. The GC is also overseeing a change in law firm appointment and service delivery (95 percent of GCs provide input into the law firm selection process), while vigorous focus on quality, cost, and performance have seen one in three GCs terminating a firm for failing to meet expectations.

5. Bigger than a law firm partner

This comes as the GC has replaced the law firm partner as the highest-paid and most-senior role in the legal profession. Instead, the GC is becoming as influential as the CFO and other senior leaders in the boardroom. The pay for a Fortune 500 General Counsel can reach $6.7 million annually and the GC’s empire extends to overseeing several hundred lawyers and teams of legal operations experts. This is particularly true in heavily-regulated or IP-intensive industries where legal departments are the functional equivalent of a large law firm embedded inside multinational corporations. For instance, Kristin Svercheck, General Counsel at Lyft, following Lyft’s legal department merger with its compliance team, says: “With the legal team’s growth, I’m now running a small law firm in-house. I have had to flex my management muscle, which is a very different skill set than being a lawyer.”

6. GCs Taking their Seat at the Table

Most of the major critical issues facing directors and CEOs today are legal issues, and the general counsel is a diverse and unique voice at the executive level. Indeed, no entity benefits from this elevated role more than the organization itself. “An organization’s values are reinforced through its structure and systems,” says ACC President and CEO Veta T. Richardson. “When the general counsel has a seat at the chief executive’s leadership table, it sends a signal to the company’s stakeholders that legality, ethics, compliance, and other legal risk considerations are top priorities of the company.”

The 2019 General Counsel Landscape Full report 

Yet as this shift in prestige and power occurred for the General Counsel at companies and organizations across America, there remains scant quantifiable data on the skills and backgrounds to enter into the role and succeed and thrive.

The 2019 General Counsel Landscape,  is an unprecedented data-driven analysis of the skills and background of the GC at its most prominent point in history. It provides a 30-page analysis of the fast-developing position, using real LinkedIn data on more than 34,000 general counsel that reveals the anatomy of a general counsel from the smallest of businesses to the largest enterprises in the United States.

Ensure you Get your free copy as soon as it lands 

Sign up now to receive the 2019 General Counsel Landscape report to discover:

  • What GCs are being paid by industry, age, gender, and legal specialization
  • In-depth analysis of the  Fortune 500 GC and the stepping stone to getting there as a GC
  • Recent hires of female GCs, and the scope and challenges of a GC gender pay gap
  • The precise skills that have given today’s GCs the edge in getting to the top 

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