Dealing with a CEO change, managing to budgets, assessing outside service providers, and leading a robust law department - these are among the many topics driving general counsel to seek peer-level conversations. Whatever Marschall Smith is doing at 3M, or Mark Chandler is doing at Cisco, or Michele Coleman-Mayes is doing at Allstate, I suspect you might want to consider that "best practice" for your legal department.
Recognizing the demand for in-house counsel networking, a plethora of associations, organizations, clubs, forums, conferences, events and online sites exist to serve in-house counsel. But if you sit in the big chair and you are truly the Chief Legal Officer, what is the best organization for you to join? If you only attend one conference per year, which one should you choose?
Start with my favorite Groucho Marx quote, but tweak it as follows: "I refuse to join any club that would have recruiters, law firms, e-discovery providers and other consultants as members." This advice might sound strange, coming from a recruiter, but I understand my place in the in-house counsel ecosystem. More importantly, I know that you place the highest value on best practices suggestions from each other. If one of your colleagues opines, "you should use Evers," that is far more powerful than anything I can say or do from an exhibit hall.
Now, here is the tricky part: If you are the lead attorney at your company, do you want to join a club that includes in-house counsel members at levels below general counsel? Here is the single biggest reason why many GCs avoid certain events: They hate getting approached by in-house counsel who are in job search mode. Yet, most in-house counsel associations and conferences can't survive on GCs alone. So, what follows is my guide to your options, including an assessment of how certain events and "clubs" rank in relation to the Groucho Marx quote.
The Pay-to-Play Events
Service providers, my firm included, want GC access and airtime at GC events. A for-profit business model has responded to this provider-driven demand. A recent example is the "Corporate Counsel Forum" held at the Boca Raton Resort & Club in December, created by a company called Consero. General counsel attend by invitation only, giving such events positive weight on the exclusivity scale. Attendees agree to take meetings with sponsors who pay $20,000 and up for the opportunity. The most successful player in this space is probably Argyle Executive Forum, which runs "CLO Leadership" events at which sponsors pay for the privilege of moderating panels and introducing speakers. There are a few variations of the Pay-to-Play model, but ask yourself a couple of obvious questions. For the paid meet-and-greet format, am I serving my company by giving favorable treatment to the larger service providers with huge marketing budgets? During conference sessions, am I getting best practices content or an elegantly presented advertisement?
Events with Editorial Integrity
There are several events, local and national, that strive to provide quality content for general counsel. Some are run by the trade associations themselves, and I'll get to those in the next section, but there are really two national players in this space. InsideCounsel puts editorial support into its annual "SuperConference," and Corporate Counsel magazine is behind the annual "ALM General Counsel Conference." Both publications separate editorial from advertising, and for events this translates into panel speakers with robust content and fewer sponsor ties. For full disclosure, I have been a speaker at SuperConference. Bottom-line: These are both solid events with editorial integrity and you should try to attend at least one. Do note, however, that they are less exclusive than the pay-to-play events and so in-house counsel at all levels attend.
The Trade Associations
Okay, now we get to the heart of the matter. If you selected only one in-house counsel "club" for a membership and active participation, which one merits your time? I think my answer might surprise you. In terms of revenue and membership growth, the Association of Corporate Counsel is the most successful trade group. Ironically, I think those metrics of success are making ACC far less attractive if you sit in the big chair. At the local level, sponsors now rule content during the monthly meetings, which have become pay-to-play affairs. And sadly, attendance is driven largely by unemployed attorneys who seek networking, not best practices content. Nationally, the organization has become politically active, filing amicus curiae briefs with The Supreme Court and acting as the lobbying arm for in-house counsel. That's not a bad development, and so ACC may deserve your economic support if you are aligned with its policy objectives. However, I don't think ACC is where you want to spend your time. There's no exclusivity at the GC level, and the editorial control mechanism for events is weak versus functions backed by InsideCounsel or Corporate Counsel magazines.
Next up to bat is the General Counsel Roundtable, a subsidiary of a for-profit consulting company called Corporate Executive Board.
General Counsel Roundtable gets the highest mark in terms of keeping sponsors away. It's the opposite of the pay-to-play model, earning its money instead from significant membership fees. This organization offers valuable reports and information, so it's worth joining if your budget allows. However, General Counsel Roundtable falls short as a networking vehicle. It's not where GCs go to talk with each other. That may be changing now that General Counsel Roundtable has made a strategic investment in Legal OnRamp, an online web site designed for best practices dialogue. Let's keep our eye on that.
Here is my recommendation: I offer a national option and a local suggestion. For the Chief Legal Officers of major legal departments, check out The General Counsel Forum. This organization started several years ago as The Texas General Counsel Forum. Texans know about clubs and exclusivity, and GCs in the lone star state felt underserved by ACC and its broad member base. When TGCF says you need to be the #1 lawyer at your company to join, it means business. And it has taken this model national. If you are outside of Texas, you may not be familiar with TGCF yet, but don't let that deter you. This group offers the best peer-level conversation. You can be a leader who catches this wave while the organization is growing and experimenting with new ideas for serving the specific needs of GCs at major companies.
For the most exclusive peer-to-peer networking option, look locally. In many cities, the top legal officers meet amongst themselves, usually over lunch, often at the headquarters location of a member. In Chicago, for example, GCs seek out the "North Shore General Counsel Club." You can only join if another member invites you. There are no websites or sponsors. It's just leaders talking with leaders. I'm probably not even supposed to know that it exists. And so once again, I really do know how Groucho Marx felt.