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Law Department Politics 101

A new General Counsel has just joined your company, and she was an external hire.  

            For service providers, like my search firm, a new GC from the outside usually means dramatic change.  This summer, I lost a long term corporate client, because a new GC is happy with, and loyal to, a different search firm.  I understand that dynamic and don’t take it personally.  In fact, I picked up a new corporate client two weeks later.  Why?  Because the new GC of another company happens to be someone who was pleased with our firm in his previous position.  

            For law firms with existing matters and multiple internal relationships, change of this kind usually happens more slowly.  But it happens.  Outside providers recognize leadership change as both a threat and an opportunity, and we scramble to win within the new political landscape.  Sales professionals from all disciplines have understood this dynamic for years, which is why many mine LinkedIn and corporate press releases to identify prospects based mainly on leadership changes.  

            Many inside counsel can learn from this outside provider perspective.  Too often, you fail to appreciate the impact of a leadership change on your career.  Politically savvy inside counsel understand that a new GC, especially one coming from outside, means everything to them.  

My best advice for winning in a changing political landscape is to pretend that you are on an extended job interview.  Learn what the new GC values and get on-board from Day One with the culture she wants to create and the goals she wants to accomplish. Borrowing from my inner nerd to use a Star Trek quote: “Resistance is futile.”  

I am always surprised by how many inside counsel don’t get this intuitively.  Many of you feel that a new GC needs to prove himself to the department and you take a wait and see attitude.  Not only do you resist change, but you become the voice that explains how things are “normally” done at your company.  You may even think you are helping the new GC by offering such guidance.  

To be blunt:  there will be winners and losers within your law department after a new GC takes the helm.  You may see a colleague retire earlier than you expected.  You will probably see someone promoted internally more quickly than you expected (hopefully that is you!).  The law department’s organizational chart will change in six to twelve months.  

Be aware and stay aware.  If you sense that your experience profile, or pedigree, or personality is not in sync with the new GC, trust your gut.  You are in trouble.  Don’t make the error of laziness or the error of hubris and sit tight.  Start a confidential job search.  Don’t become an undervalued member of a changing team, even if you can hang tight and hold onto your job.  

Most new GCs from the outside want to identify key players from the existing law department.  A new GC can be the best thing to happen for your career.  You will know quickly.  


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Mike Evers

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

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