Rules for Being an Effective General Counsel

Rules for Being an Effective General Counsel

For those of you who are fans of Bill Maher or Dua Lipa, the idea of “New Rules” is a familiar one: identifying issues and committing to a new way doing things to improve outcomes. As we near the end to a challenging year, I have been thinking about my personal “rules” for being an effective General Counsel, and how they’ve evolved over time to reflect an ever-changing professional landscape. These “GC rules” have helped me whether working full-time or part-time, internal or external, as a newbie or a lifer. And because the whole purpose of developing rules to live by is to evolve and grow, I hope this list encourages you to reflect on your own rules (and maybe even share them with us!). So here goes, my current Top 10 GC Rules:

#1 Learn the Business
A key value of in-house counsel is the ability to render practical advice that considers the business’ unique model, strategies, finances and other business realities. Read company business plans. Seek out the business unit heads. Understand how products and services work. Know the competition. It also never hurts to read an industry newsletter, follow social media or join a relevant LinkedIn group. 

#2 Know What You Don’t Know
Be honest with yourself about what you are capable of handling with competence and efficiency and when you may lack the expertise to handle a matter or even issue-spot for one. In such cases, ask for help. You cannot know everything, but knowing your limits definitely reduces risk.

#3 Disagree Without Being Disagreeable
In other words, have a spine but be nice. One of my clients called me “an iron fist in a velvet glove,” which I took as a great compliment (even though I am not entirely sure that he meant it that way).

#4 Be Calm
Business can get pretty heated sometimes. Clients appreciate a lawyer who remains calm, thoughtful and non-judgmental. Clients need an advocate, especially one who can stay above the fray.

#5 Be a Problem Solver
All lawyers have to say “no” to clients, but it’s always best to try and offer a solution or alternative. Problem solvers have positive attitudes that people appreciate regardless of outcome. 

#6 Ask Questions
Sometimes, GC’s are pulled into business deals (too) late in the game. If things are not clear (such as who are the players or previous communications), request clarification. Although you are smart and attentive, you are not a mind-reader.

 #7 Market the Legal Function
If you are an in-house GC, pull together a presentation that outlines your mission and communication style, provides guidance on how the legal function offers support, and makes the legal team (even that is just you) approachable. If you are external counsel, encourage your clients to do this by offering samples or suggesting a Zoom presentation.

#8 Pick Up the Phone
Particularly when operating remotely, the constant email, texting, messaging and Slacking can feel overwhelming and alienating. A quick phone call is sometimes the most efficient way to communicate; plus, you tend to learn something new through conversation, even if it is just about your client.

#9 Be Proactive About Money  
Whether internal or external, try to give reasonable estimates of the time/resources involved in any legal project. Likewise, manage your own budget proactively by looking for ways to streamline and create efficiencies.

#10 Know Your Worth  
Even the most highly-compensated in-house lawyers make only a fraction of outside counsel fees when calculated on an hourly basis, which can undermine perceptions of value. Do not let it! Being an in-house GC carries many benefits that are simply unmeasurable by an hourly rate.

As we close the chapter on 2020 (finally), it’s a great time to reflect on how you can best add value in the coming year. Outside GC works closely with many in-house legal teams, providing valuable overflow or subject-matter support. We’re here to help you shine in 2021! If you would like to learn more about our on-demand in-house general counsel services, please Contact Us.


Deborah Stehr is a member of our New York-area team and brings over 25 years of transactional and technology experience with a particular focus on the consumer goods industry, including digital services and e-commerce. Deborah has considerable experience in structuring both domestic and international arrangements for the manufacture, supply, distribution and sale of goods, as well as in protecting and monetizing brands and intellectual property throughout the product life cycle.

This publication should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances not an offer to represent you. It is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your attorney concerning any particular situation and any specific legal questions you may have. Pursuant to applicable rules of professional conduct, portions of this publication may constitute Attorney Advertising.

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