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The path to the big chair

General counsel offer career advancement advice

This column is the first in a new format featuring advice directly from exceptional general counsel throughout the U.S. I hope you enjoy this incredibly valuable perspective. Moreover, I encourage you to email me with suggested questions you would like our rotating panel of general counsel experts to answer.

Our first topic cuts to the heart of why many readers have been kindly following this column for years. I asked our experts this question:

“If you were to offer one tip or piece of advice for a mid-level inside counsel who aspires to sit in the general counsel chair eventually, what would it be?”

My thanks to our general counsel contributors this month: Jeff Carr of FMC Technologies in Houston, Kirsten Hewitt of Whirlpool in Benton Harbor, Mich., Roger Theodoredis of The WhiteWave Foods Co. in Denver, and Marschall Smith, a true dean within our in-house community who brings a GC perspective from companies such as 3M, Brunswick and ADM.

Kirsten and Marschall echo a theme of focusing on current performance. “Focus your energy on driving important business outcomes over career objectives,” Kirsten suggests. “Reliably delivering substantial and demonstrable value through your contributions and leadership should ultimately create diverse opportunities to drive even bigger results—ultimately in bigger roles if that is what you are seeking,” she states.

From Marschall: “Do your current job and do it really well. The rest will take care of itself.”

Jeff and Roger expand on this theme, focusing on the nature of becoming a sought-after source of advice within the business you are serving. Roger says, “Understand the business of your internal clients, and provide them with customer service that exceeds their expectations. If your internal clients view you both as an indispensable business advisor and lawyer, you will be sought out by others within the organization.”

Jeff emphasizes the value of giving real business advice, encouraging lawyers to get comfortable with “yes” and “no” answers. Jeff advises: “Remember that interesting questions of law are only interesting to lawyers. Business people need answers, not considerations – they need one-handed lawyers (not “on the one hand this, on the other hand that).” Jeff challenges you to think in this perspective: “If you address every situation as if it was your liberty, personal safety, property or money at issue, you’ll always make the right recommendation. But you can’t sit in this chair if you can’t determine acceptable risks.”

I hope these recommendations serve as a guiding light for you, encouraging you to focus on what matters and on what will qualify you for the general counsel role when an opportunity arises. Do great work, become a trusted advisor, and your path may lead to the top of the ladder within your current organization.

We all know, however, that sometimes the opportunity will come from the outside. The advice here still applies, of course, as you will need this kind of experience and mind-set to succeed wherever you go. But I will use the author’s privilege here to emphasize that networking outside of your current organization will expand your potential options. Marschall offers sage advice on the most powerful and elegant way to do just that, and so I’ll conclude with his comments on networking: “Actively working on local charities and with community organizations is a great way to do good and build contacts. It is amazing the paths these relationships take.”

Contributing Author

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Mike Evers

Mike Evers recruits attorneys for corporate legal departments throughout the United States. Please visit www.everslegal.com. His...

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