Destined to remain crown prince
There are always pitfalls and snags to be kept in mind, when making your career as a corporate legal advisor. Naturally, you need to be a good legal advisor without becoming a legal maniac, you have to be a team player without attending meeting after meeting (your cases won’t be dealt with by themselves) and you will need to understand your company’s business as well as being responsible for the risks involved.
Concurrently, you will probably have the sound ambition of becoming Head of Department, preferably General Counsel and even Chief Legal Officer of the Board. Healthy ambition is a fine thing and will always be appreciated.
The question is what really happens. Many top jobs with companies are spoken for by outsiders. Of course this is not always the case, many an insider works his way up, but most of the time the grass looks greener on the other side. This leaves the legal advisor giving his best for years on end and waiting for the moment when that executive job is finally available. And I’m not talking about the archetypal runner-up, who missed out on promotion yet again. Hardly surprising she or he misses out on promotion, by the way.
Sure, we’re talking about fine, ambitious corporate legal advisors with talent, who have been overlooked. But why? Why are their chances at making legal boss in their own company smaller than those of outsiders whom nobody knows and whom the company has never heard of? Not a pleasant thought for hard-working, ambitious corporate legal advisors.
“Things from the past”
I did some asking around about why Boards of Directors prefer a legal boss from outside. Most people argue that insiders have too much of a history in their own company. The team isn’t familiar with her/him as boss and that makes things difficult. Besides, there are always things from the past on which colleagues, particularly non-legal colleagues are quick to comment. Things like: not having returned calls immediately or not finishing that task on time, having ignored someone or having let them down in a meeting, saying no once too often to a business idea. You name it. Outsiders never have that problem. They don’t have a past and their mistakes are always at their former employer’s expense.
Also, the opportunity for making changes presents itself to Boards of Directors once an executive leaves the company. Apparently this is the opportune moment they have been waiting for. Taking on someone from inside means taking on more of the same with a similar past, so they say.
So, what does it boil down to for legal advisors who put in some hard graft for their company, in their aspirations to becoming top dog one day? The answer is plain and simple: keep your eye on the ball. Legal advisors need to inquire regularly about plans made in case the boss leaves. Also, they will do well wondering how their colleagues view them. A bit of introspective thinking never hurt anyone.
Finally, an ambitious corporate legal advisor will need to determine her/his chances of ever becoming the person making the decisions. Keep a clear mind and be aware of the fact that there are other companies waiting for legal advisors who have executive experience elsewhere. All’s well that ends well.