Your General Counsel has left and you have been asked to take on the role. It’s what you have been wanting, perhaps for years. But wait, there’s a catch. You are being promoted to “Interim General Counsel,” and the company is not necessarily committed to removing the "interim" part of your new title.
I recommend a cold assessment of the opportunity and urge you to seek counsel from mentors and trusted advisors. You could be holding a golden ticket, or you may be heading into a frustrating career conundrum.
Who communicated the promotion to you? If it’s the CEO, and you will report to the CEO, that’s promising. If it was anyone other than the CEO, or if you will not have much CEO access during the interim period, you are in a potentially bad situation.
Did the previous General Counsel leave due to a strained relationship with the CEO or after a difficult legal problem hurt the company? Even if the GC did everything right, if the CEO was unhappy with your predecessor, you are in a dicey spot. Do you have a relationship with the CEO or not really? Be honest in your assessment and avoid wishful thinking.
Is the company engaging a search firm, and have you been told that you will be given the “opportunity” to interview for the General Counsel position? If yes, the chances of you becoming the GC are between slim and none. Companies engage search firms when they intend to hire from the outside. Period.
On the other hand, if the initial reaction to your predecessor’s departure is simply a little inertia, this could be a real opportunity. Seize it. Seek a meeting with your CEO to candidly discuss the role. The reaction to the request itself will speak volumes. If the meeting is granted, give an enthusiastic “yes” to an Interim title (perhaps even suggest it), while getting real with your CEO at the same time.
Ask for a trial or probationary period, often three to six months, during which you can be evaluated in the role. The ideal Interim period is one in which the company gives you a chance to prove yourself (no guarantees), but does not engage in a search process. Under this circumstance, bet on yourself and focus all of your energy on the job.
If the CEO won’t have that kind of conversation with you, or if the company simply goes straight to a search process, what are your options? I’m reluctant to give one size fits all advice here, because political realities tend to trump generalized recommendations. You probably want to start actively seeking employment elsewhere.
In some situations, you may be able to negotiate an exit bonus that triggers if you or the company decide to end your employment relationship after the transition to a new GC is complete. In rare situations, it may be okay and still fulfilling to return to your previous position. Very rare.