A lot of in-house attorneys dream of reaching the top someday. And when they fall short of becoming the Managing Editor for Above the Law, they look to general counsel positions instead.
You get paid the big bucks, fly first class everywhere, and get to boss around outside law firms. What’s not to like?
I decided to find out. I checked with several general counsels (GCs) and chief legal officers (CLOs) (note — no one at my company), to learn what they think really sucks about being at the top of the legal hierarchy….
There were several baddies that made the list, but one of the worst things mentioned about what it’s like at the very top is the buck stops with you. There’s no one else that you can point to or blame — no partners, no law firms, no other employees.
If your outside counsel gives you bad advice (and if you’re a GC long enough, somebody will), you’re held responsible because, hey, you chose to use them. If your in-house lawyers royally mess up, it’s your fault for hiring incompetents or not training them properly. If your legal team members hate each other or hate you (or hate themselves), you need to figure out how to get them to do their jobs effectively anyway. You need to ensure that every single screwup and other situation that can possibly go bad on the legal front is dealt with.
Another challenge of being the top legal person is that you’re constantly having to defend the value of your team. Unlike certain other departments, such as sales and product development, the legal team doesn’t bring in money into the company. It does protect the company from losing money, but that’s not the kind of thing that gets celebrated with press releases and other fanfare.
On the contrary, the legal department is viewed as a cost center, and it can be draining and demoralizing to constantly have to promote the value of the team all year long in order to make sure that everyone’s properly compensated when bonus season rolls around. Heads of legal departments often find themselves fighting for every nickel of compensation for their staff. And legal team members are often among the first ones targeted for headcount reductions when the company is looking around to cut costs. In such situations, as the GC, you need to argue yet again for the little-recognized value that your team provides the company. And if, despite your best efforts, you’re unsuccessful, you may end up cutting good people from your group and loading more work onto the rest.
Office politics is also much more complex and in your face if you’re the GC or CLO. You’re the representative for the whole legal group when cross-departmental issues arise. For example, if somebody on your team doesn’t get along with an employee on another team, that’s your problem. You may also find other departments jockeying to increase their budget or headcount at your group’s expense, e.g., “Why are we spending that money on legal when there’s no risk in that area? We could instead be spending more on marketing to increase sales.”
If you’re a GC at a smaller company, you may also find yourself dealing with a lot of employment issues. Companies with very small human resources group often depend on the legal team to play a large role in managing HR issues. This may mean that you’re actually the person firing and laying off employees (regardless whether they’re in the legal group) and managing the entire termination process. Not exactly the kind of job one expects to perform when they receive their JD.
Another politics point — you’re less fungible than other lawyers in your group. If the head of Product Development has a problem with one of your lawyers that can’t be resolved, you may be able to swap that lawyer out with someone else on your team to support the Product Development group. If the head of Product Development has a problem with you that can’t be resolved, you may face a situation where people are conspiring to get you fired. So GCs face a lot of pressure to please and accommodate everyone and to be careful about what they complain about. The lack of fungibility also means you’re always on call in case something potentially disastrous happens (or if someone high up just gets really worked up over something) — you can’t just hand it over to the other GC who’s not on vacation.
Job hunting is when the final “sucks to be GC” point kicks in. It’s hard to find another one. Due to the pyramidal structure of legal departments that places just one GC or CLO at the top, if you want to continue on as a GC or move up to become the head legal honcho at a bigger company, there aren’t as many spots available compared to other legal positions. And you’ll be competing for them against senior attorneys at other companies who are looking to become a GC for the first time. Even if you’re not looking for the top position anymore, companies can be wary of attorneys who’ve gotten used to calling the shots and would now need to adjust to deferring to someone else’s authority.
So there are definitely at least a few downsides to being in the top in-house legal spot. Are there any other sucky aspects of being a general counsel or chief legal officer that you’d like to share? Email me or comment below. Next week, we’ll delve into what GCs and CLOs have described as the most awesome aspects of their job.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.