SuperConference 2013: Fortune 500 GCs identify challenges and give advice

Don Liu, Jeffrey Carr and Tom Sabatino talked about business knowledge, hiring decisions, potential landmines and more

A panel of top general counsel kicked off Day Two of InsideCounsel’s SuperConference by providing insight and advice for aspiring and current GCs in a session entitled “Top Challenges Fortune 500 General Counsel Face.”

One of the major challenges, panelists said, is the perception that in-house lawyers can’t also be businesspeople. “I don’t think it’s an either/or,” said Thomas Sabatino, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Walgreens. “I think that’s a false dichotomy.”

Bridging the perceived gap between a GC’s legal and business role starts with effective communication. “There’s no reason to sound like a lawyer just because you are one,” said Don Liu, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Xerox Corp.  Instead, in-house lawyers should be able to clearly explain legal concepts to colleagues outside the law department.

And it’s not enough for GCs to have legal expertise; they also must have a deep knowledge of the factors driving their companies’ business. “I’m amazed when a public company in-house lawyer isn’t intimately familiar with their K or their Q or their profits statement, which every shareholder presumably reads pretty carefully,” Liu said.

To promote this business knowledge, Liu regularly meets with his legal team to discuss each quarterly earnings report and the strengths and weaknesses that it reflects, as does fellow panelist Jeffrey Carr, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of FMC Technologies Inc.

Legal teams at nonpublic companies may not have the benefit of regular earnings reports, but they should still seek out key business metrics such as internal and external costs, and legal spend as a percentage of revenue.

Of course, GCs can’t run their legal departments alone. Building a top-flight legal team, the panelists said, is less about hiring candidates with perfect law school pedigrees or a list of big-name employers on their resumes. “I think technical skills are overrated,” Liu said. “EQ [emotional quotient] is probably the most important factor that I look at to determine the probability of success.”

Jeffrey Carr agreed, saying that although technical skills are “the price of admission,” positions within his legal department require lawyers to fit into the existing company ethos. “I can fix a lack of credentials or a lack of experience,” he said. “What’s not fixable is a cultural mismatch.”

The panelists closed the discussion by offering pieces of advice for aspiring GCs, as well as landmines that in-house attorneys should avoid. Tom Sabatino stressed the importance of careful listening. “Lawyers want to show that they are smart … But one of the skill sets that all good GCs have is the ability to listen, to synthetize information, to figure out what you don’t know, to ask questions and to then create a strategy around solving problems,” he said.

For  more SuperConference coverage:

SuperConference panelists offer advice on how to lead change in your legal department

SuperConference 2013: How to effectively use technology to manage law departments

SuperConference 2013: Ethics Boot Camp

SuperConference panel discusses the state of labor in the age of Obama

Keynote roundup: SuperConference 2013 day 1

Contributing Author

Alanna Byrne

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