How to Find the Right General Counsel Candidate for Your Executive Team – Part II

In looking for a general counsel, most CEOs seek out a candidate with intelligence, gravitas, strategic vision, emotional intelligence, management experience and someone who can act as an advisor. These characteristics are followed by having specific industry experience, legal expertise and the right instinct to handle the unique pain points of a client’s particular business. Most of these desired qualities are soft skills and are not evident from a resume. Let’s take a look at each one.

“Unless you’re facing a unique situation, look for a generalist—someone with a broad range of skills.”


1. What’s on the resume.
Companies hiring a GC are often looking to fill an immediate need, such as a litigator for a pending case, or a regulatory specialist for an ongoing issue.

Unless your organization is facing a unique situation such as those, look for a generalist—someone with a broad range of skills who can help the company move forward in the diverse areas facing modern corporations. This person typically has experience working with a board of directors and should be able to handle corporate matters while also troubleshooting litigation, regulatory, labor and employment, among other issues. It is imperative to consider your organization’s long-term strategic and business plan and not just the bug bite that itches most today.

2. Industry-specific and/or public-company experience.
If your company is public, consider a GC with recent securities experience. If your company is highly regulated, someone coming from another regulated industry may be of value.


1. Management skills.
Management skills encompass both hard skills and soft skills and cannot be captured on paper. A resume can show whether someone has managed a team and how many they have managed, but deeper questioning and reference checking is required to truly understand if the candidate’s management style is just an “open door policy” or whether they have actively hired, evaluated, grown and mentored a team.

“Dig deep in the one-on-one interview process to assess real-world situations and provide some context regarding the candidates’ ability to take a legal concept and translate it into business.”

Once that assessment has been made, there should be an evaluation of the person’s management style to determine whether his or her style will align with your corporate philosophy, your business model and your existing C-suite.

2. Business orientation.
Leaders almost always want a GC with a business orientation. This skill set can be vague and can have different meanings for each CEO. For some, it means a candidate who has functional non-legal business experience. For others, it is a candidate with an MBA. Still others believe it means the candidate has “street smarts.” Dig deep in the one-on-one interview process to assess real-world situations and provide some context regarding the candidates’ ability to take a legal concept and translate it into business.

“A prospective GC should be prepared and fully comfortable engaging in the business realm with his/her business partners, particularly where legal issues intersect with business operations and vice versa,” says A.B. Cruz III, executive vice president and GC of Emergent BioSolutions. “A GC’s understanding of the company’s business(es) is paramount. The GC and legal team’s goals and objectives must be aligned with, and supportive of company business objectives. All legal advice and counsel provided by the GC and legal team must be made in the business context.”

3. Gravitas.
I liken gravitas to former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Gravitas is a nebulous quality. When they walk into the room, they look, sound, act and encompass the sentiment. It can only be discovered through multiple interactions with a candidate. How does he/she manage up and does he/she place that same importance in managing down? Does he/she command a room, garner respect and ooze credibility?

4. Leadership.
“In an age of unique cross-border challenges and inevitable crises, GCs must be leaders—they must personify an enterprise-wide insistence to good governance,” says Suzanne Rich Folsom, General Counsel and Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, at U.S. Steel. “The GC’s very presence must be a constant reminder of the company’s unwavering commitment to best practices, and to the goal of transparency. As I’m speaking to a candidate, I would ask myself how confident am I that this person can handle the legal and compliance burdens that could overwhelm the company. Can this person help us navigate a specific crisis and lead us out from under this issue. In short, is this lawyer a leader?”

Hiring a GC is much more art than science. A carefully planned and executed search will yield a successful GC who is the best match for your organization.

Deborah Ben-Canaan: Deborah Ben-Canaan is a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa and the leader of the Washington, D.C. In-House Practice Group. She can be reached at 202-628-0665 or