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7 Things I Did to Become a General Counsel

by Joseph Schohl

When I’m asked for advice on how to become a Chief Legal Officer / General Counsel, I often remind the person asking that there is no one right way to become GC. Ultimately people must find what works best for them. Having said that, here are 7 things I did to become GC of a Fortune 500 company.

1. Have a clear vision for what you want.

I knew early on that I wanted to be a GC.

While I was a corporate associate at Milbank LLP and Sidley Austin LLP, I wrote my goal on a piece of paper I carried around with me. It said, “I will become GC of a publicly-traded healthcare company by the time I’m 40.” It may seem old-fashioned, but there’s no denying that writing down and committing to achieving a SMART goal is the clearest path to success.

Having a clear vision of where I was headed motivated me to go beyond what was expected of me in each role I had along the way.

My first in-house job was at Baxter International Inc. and it was a great training ground for future GCs. I’ll always be grateful to Jan Stern Reed and Ruthie Beam for recruiting me to that position.

A large and successful law department like Baxter’s (then led by one of the all-time best GCs Thomas Sabatino) allowed tremendous opportunities for growth. When I was there in the early 2000s, there were at least six of us who became public company GCs.

I always advise law firm lawyers who are looking to go in-house for the first time to choose carefully because it can make all the difference to their career trajectory.

Question to consider: whether it’s to become a General Counsel or something else, do you have a clear goal that you have committed to in writing?

Have you ever done this before? If so, what results did you get?

2. Make sure your experience is well-rounded.

Most of us started out in law firms working in a particular area of law. For me, it was working on mergers & acquisitions and capital markets transactions, which is a good place to start if your goal is to become a GC/CLO. But of course there are many paths to the GC desk.

Whatever your area of expertise when you arrive at your first in-house role, after a period of time you need to get out of your comfort zone and look for opportunities to serve the company in new ways. If you were brought in for a corporate job, you should look for opportunities to support the field. If you started in the field, consider a corporate role. The role is called “general” counsel for a reason. It’s easier to be a generalist if you’ve moved around the company rather than stayed in the same role.

What this means for you will depend on where you started, what your company does, and what opportunities you can create. How does your company make money? You will learn a lot from supporting teams such as sales and marketing, operations, manufacturing, business development, and integration.

Find opportunities where you can be the “mini-GC” of a business unit, however small. When I was at Baxter, it meant leaving a position working regularly with C-suite executives to take a lower-paid position supporting the smallest business unit in the entire company. If you are willing to do things like this, it’s more likely you’ll have the chance to take your own seat at the C-suite table, and when you do your experience will provide you with new levels of confidence and credibility that will make it all worth it.

Question to consider: whether it’s to become a General Counsel or something else, what can you do to round out your experience in a way that will allow you to add more value in the future?

3. Develop your business acumen.

Unlike in a law firm, in a business the lawyers are not the star of the show. You shine by helping your team accomplish its business objectives, not by making the most brilliant legal arguments. In order to do that, you have to understand what your business clients are trying to do and why they are trying to do it. This will allow you to give relevant and practical advice more effectively.

To accelerate the development of my business acumen, I earned an MBA in the evenings while working full-time. That arrangement allowed me to reinforce what I was learning in business school by applying it the very next day in my workplace. While not every GC needs to earn an MBA, they do need to speak the language of business and develop a strategic business mindset.

Working outside the law department in a business role is another powerful way to accelerate your development in this area. You will inevitably become a better and more pragmatic lawyer if you spend some time as the client.

And spending time in the types of roles I talked about last week are another way to build your understanding of the business.

Question to consider: how extensive is your knowledge of your company’s business and of the industry in which it operates? What can you do to take that to the next level?

4. Spend time doing deep work.

With so many things demanding our immediate attention, it’s easy to confuse being busy with adding value. Promptly answering requests from your business clients is important, but there’s more to the job than that.

In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he hypothesizes that deep work is becoming more valuable at the same time as it is becoming more rare.

To be a successful GC, one must have the ability to learn and master hard things quickly and produce high quality work at the speed of business. Neither of those things can happen without carving out time free of distractions to think.

I blocked time on my calendar every day for 60-90 minutes of deep work to digest inputs, analyze problems, and devise creative solutions. This was helpful to become a GC but was even more important once I had the job. Work that makes the highest contribution should not be left to the gaps between calls and emails.

Question to consider: how much time do you spend each day concentrating deeply on a difficult task for prolonged periods of time without getting distracted?

5. Have a growth mindset, particularly in the face of difficulties.

As a junior in-house lawyer, I once had to give a presentation to a relatively small group of attorneys. About halfway through the introduction, I became extremely self-conscious and had a feeling of panic come over me. Was my entire career about to implode?

Concerned that this experience might cause me to avoid opportunities to present in the future, I researched ways to improve my public speaking skills and soon found myself in a lunchtime Toastmasters class once a week. I sought out speaking opportunities until it was second nature to speak in front of groups of all sizes.

Don’t let your current limitations define you – instead acknowledge you have an opportunity to improve, do the work required to turn your weakness into a strength, and your confidence will soar.

On your path to the C-suite, not everything will go as you plan, and you must be able to use obstacles to take action to grow stronger.

Question to consider: What skill that will be important for you to develop as a senior executive needs work? What are you not good at (yet) and how can you improve in that area?

6. Seek intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards from your work.

Seek out opportunities to contribute and bring your best effort to everything you do. When you complete a project, don’t expect compliments, recognition or money. If those things happen, great, but if that’s what it takes to motivate you then your success will be dependent on others. Instead, focus on the knowledge and skills you are acquiring which will increase your value indefinitely.

I took a pay cut three times during my career because I felt the opportunity in front of me would make me a better and more well-rounded lawyer.

It’s human nature to get a new job and be excited by the salary and benefits only to have that initial excitement turn into resentment over time that you are being underpaid. If you find yourself in that position, increase rather than reduce your level of effort.

Remember that the money you receive for your work while you’re gaining experience is a fraction of the value you are accreting. The value is in the opportunity to learn new skills and practice them until you reach a level of excellence. Then the opportunities will follow.

Question to consider: What extra project can you take on that will be valuable for both your company and for you personally through the knowledge you will gain as a result?

7. Choose great mentors and be willing to learn from them.

I would never have been a GC without great mentors at every step along the way. There are too many to list them all but here are several that taught me important lessons.

In private practice, Ken Baronsky at Milbank LLP literally taught me how to be a lawyer. John O’Hare at Sidley Austin LLP taught me the importance of understanding the client’s business, not just the transaction at hand.

At Baxter International Inc., Harry Kraemer, Jr. taught me how to be a values-based leader, Jan Stern Reed taught me to be responsive and thorough, and Bryan Krueger taught me how to listen without interrupting!

At DaVita Kidney Care, Kent Thiry taught me to show up FULLY prepared and to be a proactive GC, Joe Mello taught me how to use data to identify and address the root cause of issues (and to never have more than three big priorities at a time!), and Tom Usilton taught me how incredibly important relationships are. Jeffrey E. Stone at McDermott Will & Emery and Spencer Klein at Morrison Foerster taught me the art of communicating with the board of directors.

At Radiology Partners, Rich Whitney taught me to always be on the lookout for opportunities to create value, and Anthony Gabriel taught me how to “think different.”
I am grateful to each of them for helping me develop my skills and advance my career.

Question to consider: Are you surrounding yourself with people that will help you develop your skills and be successful in your career?

Recapping the 7 steps:

  1. Have a clear vision for what you want
  2. Make sure your experience is well-rounded
  3. Develop your business acumen
  4. Spend time doing deep work
  5. Have a growth mindset
  6. Seek intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards
  7. Choose great mentors and learn from them