General Counsel Checklist: Who Is On The Bus?

We look at how senior counsel approach legal team management, including a useful checklist and set of interview questions for in-house lawyer recruitment.

This blog aims to offer practical pointers for corporate counsel based on the experience of GCs and other senior in-house lawyers. Today, we consider how senior corporate counsel approach in-house legal team management, and specifically recruitment of in-house counsel.

We are grateful for contributions from:

  • Anthony Kenny, Assistant General Counsel Corporate and CBS at GSK
  • Sean Keaveney, Head of EMEA Legal at AlixPartners
  • Carolyn Reynolds, General Counsel at Vicinity Centres

You are recruiting a new member to your in-house legal team, and are preparing for the interview. Perhaps you have a tried and tested method for picking the right team member, or this is your first recruit.

Either way, the stakes are high - get it right, and morale, efficiency and quality will improve across the whole team, but get it wrong and the impact could be magnified in the other direction.

In-house lawyers have a unique skill set that differs from attorneys in private practice - they need to be commercial, quick thinking, legally sound and confident, but with an ability to balance risk management with commercial imperatives.

There is no room for passengers on this bus.

How can you be sure you have found the in-house lawyer who will fit into your team and your business?

Here we set out 10 criteria to explore with your candidate and provide examples of the questions you can ask to understand whether your candidate fits.

Note that there is no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to these questions and what constitutes the right ‘fit’ will be different from organization to organization.

By asking the kind of open questions we have listed, you gain insight into the candidate’s style, preferences and ways of working, which helps you make a balanced assessment of their suitability. Use our 10-point checklist below to help you get started.

1. Legal/technical skills

A person with the right legal experience and skillset is the first checkpoint. It is unlikely that a candidate without these skills will be presented to you for interview unless this box has already been checked, but verification that this person can do the work at the level you require is still important.

Questions to ask:

  • What legal/technical skills are relevant to this role? Why?  Please describe how your experience meets these needs.
  • Can you tell me about the work you love doing? And the work you are not so crazy about?
  • What is your technical strength? And weakness?

2. Problem solving skills

Technical skills and experience do not necessarily result in finding the right path through a difficult problem. It is essential that in-house lawyers identify how something can be done to further the strategic goals of the company, not simply whether it can be done. A team member with a problem-solving approach will work well with the business to find the right path whilst keeping risk under control.

Questions to ask:

  • What has been your most difficult legal problem? How did you solve it?
  • When the legal solution doesn’t match the most desirable commercial outcome, how do you move forward?

3. Curiosity/questioning mind

Learning agility and the ability to seek out answers is critical to identifying first the problem and then the appropriate legal and commercial solution. Team members who know how to keep an open mind, ask the right questions and are more likely to get to the right solution.

Questions to ask:

  • How do you identify gaps in your knowledge? What do you do about it?
  • What has been your steepest learning curve? How did you cope?
  • What do you want to learn next?

4. Capacity to work independently

The speed and volume of work in an in-house legal setting requires team members to be able to work independently and without constant supervision. A General Counsel or senior legal manager needs to be able to delegate work and know that their team member will be able to move forward independently.

Questions to ask:

  • Tell me about your working style.
  • Do you feel most comfortable working alone or in groups? Why?
  • When working in a group, what type or role (or roles) do you find you adopt?

woman using laptop

5. Confidence to make quick, commercial decisions

Understanding risk – both legal and commercial – and balancing this risk is essential to being an effective in-house counsel. Finding individuals who have the ability to confidently assess these risks, weigh them against each other and find an appropriate solution is invaluable.

Questions to ask:

  • Please describe a time when you have had to make a decision or advise on a course of action without having all the information available to you. How did you make that decision?  How did you feel about working in this way?
  • Do you tend to ask for permission or forgiveness?
  • What circumstances or environments make you feel pressurised at work?

6. Know when to escalate issues

Working independently to resolve issues efficiently is only valuable where you are confident that your team member will also escalate the issue if they have any concerns. The ability to make that judgement call is important.

Questions to ask:

  • What do you do when you are not sure of your brief?
  • How do you identify risk?
  • What do you do if you perceive that the risk is not able to be contained by your suggested legal approach?

7. Communication skills

Being able to communicate complex legal ideas and requirements to others in the team and/or people without legal training is essential. Most in-house teams are looking for counsel who are persuasive and robust in their opinion but use context and empathy to express that in a way that the business can support.

Questions to ask:

  • What is your communication style?
  • When do you struggle to make your point?
  • Please describe a time when you have had to bring someone round to your point of view. How did you do this?  What tactics were most effective?

8. Interest in the business

It is important that the lawyers are on the same team as their commercial colleagues. Ultimately, everybody is working together to achieve the strategic goals of the company. For that reason, a person who is fundamentally interested in the business and in the achievement of those goals will work toward achieving them more passionately.

Questions to ask:

  • Why are you interested in working in our industry?
  • What do you think are our most challenging legal issues?

9. Cultural fit

Exceptional teams are those that work well together. As one of our contributors said, where one member of the team “works negatively against the others, it can have a dramatic effect on morale, productivity and enjoyment”. So, simply ensuring that team members can get along is essential.

Questions to ask:

  • What are your professional values?
  • What was the best team you have ever worked or played with? What made it work so well?       
  • When have you felt happiest at work? Why?

10. Salary fit

It’s important that you and the candidate are clear about your expectations of salary, reward package and future career prospects. Understand how your candidate views this role, how it matches their expectations and how their future plans sit relative to your company’s own capabilities to meet them.

Questions to ask:

  • Tell me your thoughts about the salary on offer.
    What are your goals for the future?
We hope our 10-point checklist is useful and helps you find an in-house lawyer that fits into your team and your organization.

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