Why the Term “General Counsel” is a Misnomer

Why the Term “General Counsel” is a Misnomer

The title “general counsel” is meant to convey legal leadership and the ability to handle a wide variety of matters; however, the title itself is a misnomer. Far from the “jack of all trades” that is often associated with in-house lawyers, general counsel must wield a number of specific skills and capabilities to be effective. To best describe the competencies and qualities that a GC must possess, I have grouped them into three areas that I characterize as the “3Qs”: the Intellectual Quotient (“IQ”), Emotional Quotient (“EQ”) and Agility Quotient (“AQ”). Many lawyers only possess one of two of these abilities; a good in-house lawyer must have all three to be effective.

  1. Intellect. The first “Q” is IQ, or the measurement used to rate a person’s intelligence or mental capabilities. In a law firm, success is measured in terms of who is the “smartest” or the “most knowledgeable,” which can translate into pressure to build deep expertise in a narrow field and, in many cases, a hesitancy to handle matters outside that area. By contrast, an in-house lawyer’s IQ is evaluated based on their ability to think quickly and render cogent, on-the-spot advice, and to do so while considering a host of other factors, including the company’s business, finances, risk portfolio, strategy and culture.

    Risk reduction is the cornerstone of in-house work, but an overly strict interpretation of compliance or unnecessarily long or complex documents may cause friction with customers, conflict with operational processes or be financially burdensome. General counsel operate in an environment in which they usually do not have the luxury of conferring with other lawyers and must stand behind decisions made on a daily, even hourly, basis by accepting appropriate risk. Understanding this balance and operating within the framework takes practice, skill and the ability to gather knowledge and learn from every experience.

  2. Social-emotional. The second “Q” is the EQ, or the ability to build strong trust relationships with clients. Since in-house lawyers serve many different stakeholders from every level of an organization, they must analyze challenges from a number of corporate perspectives and understand the levers in each area. To do so effectively, a GC requires sources of information and contacts across the organization. Lawyers with a solid EQ understand that such relationships must be cultivated; they are not automatic by any means. Further, having an EQ means being able to identify knowledge gaps in your network and provide direction on how to fill them with new relationships.

    Especially in larger corporations, departments can be siloed, information guarded and deciphering communication styles across teams can be cumbersome. These obstacles are best overcome by a personalized service-oriented approach to advising. A GC who understands that all personnel at a company are clients, despite many being subordinates, will earn respect at all levels whether involving a delicate HR question from an intern or a governance question at a board meeting. To handle each of these with the appropriate tone requires developing keen antennae and keeping them tuned.

  3. Agility. The third “Q” is the AQ, which measures the ability of a lawyer to adapt quickly and thrive in a fast-moving, constantly-shifting business landscape. Whether finding solutions to new problems, or simply being flexible enough to explore new ways to facilitate business, a GC’s ability to pivot is a critical in-house skill. Agility also means being able to think clearly and calmly under pressure in order to put out fires – and to have the confidence to determine when bringing in outside experts is the best path forward.

    Agility, however, does not equate to a “seat of the pants” approach; quite to the contrary, to be agile without increasing risk requires considerable planning and strategy by the in-house attorney. For instance, all of the company’s policies, procedures and business forms must align to accomplish a specific risk landscape, whether its NDAs, MSAs, IP licenses, employee agreements, or other company documents. The GC must not only be the architect who develops the framework, but also be able to keep it in tact despite pressure from internal and external forces. Finally, to remain agile, GCs must continually seek out key indicators of change and push themselves to develop new abilities, enhance existing skills, and find ways to provide the best and most contextually sensitive advice as possible on a daily basis.

A successful GC is much more than a legal generalist as the title seemingly implies. A GC is a true business partner who, by leveraging the 3Qs, can deftly tackle a wide range of legal issues in order to keep a client’s goals on track at any stage of growth. Outside GC provides in-house legal counsel services on a fractional basis to companies of all sizes, stages of growth and industries. Each attorney on our team has held a senior in-house role, many as GCs at more than one organization. This experience translates into a keen understanding of how to get up to speed quickly and handle a wide range of matters effectively, which is what sets our firm apart from the rest. Contact us to learn how you can leverage the exceptional experience of our team for your own business.


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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