Thought Leadership » How Lawyers Ascend to GC Roles– Survey Reveals Insights, Surprises, and the Gender Gap

How Lawyers Ascend to GC Roles– Survey Reveals Insights, Surprises, and the Gender Gap

By John Gilmore

December 6, 2023

career path concept

John Gilmore is the co-founder and Managing Partner of BarkerGilmore and boasts more than three decades of experience in executive search. Under his leadership, BarkerGilmore has become a high-quality boutique in-house legal, compliance officer, and leadership advisory firm. A mentor and advisor to top global companies, he leads a high-performing team in sophisticated executive recruitment.

Becoming a general counsel is the pinnacle achievement of an in-house legal professional’s career. BarkerGilmore surveyed hundreds of general counsel to understand their path to the seat. The 2023 General Counsel Succession Report provides insight into the road to success. Most of the general counsel we surveyed (71%) were recruited to the role from outside, while the others were promoted into the position from within (29%).

The study found 69% of the internal general counsel successors were made aware of their successor status in advance; however, only 42% were informed of being a designated successor more than one year before. Hiring, developing, and retaining potential successors is a top priority for most legal leaders.

In fact, one of the most attractive justifications for a job change is the opportunity to be designated as a potential successor coinciding with the commitment and mentorship from an accomplished sitting general counsel and/or resources to hire an external coach/advisor. Without communicating and establishing a development plan for general counsel succession, leadership runs a higher risk of the most capable talent becoming impatient and being recruited elsewhere.

Surprisingly, the survey reveals a significant divide in terms of gender. Male lawyers were told earlier in their careers about successor status. Public companies were the biggest offenders with only 33% of women having more than a year’s notice compared to 45% of the men promoted. With so much pressure to diversify the leadership team, it does not make sense that more women and/or lawyers from other underrepresented groups are not part of a succession plan much earlier. There is room for significant improvement here.

On a positive note, general counsel who were internally promoted received more deliberate professional development to prepare for the general counsel role than those recruited from outside. While promoted general counsel received professional development at higher rates, both groups received similar types of development including expanded scope of responsibilities (62% promoted, 55% recruited), increased C-suite and board exposure (59% promoted, 45% recruited), leadership training (53% promoted, 35% recruited), stretch assignments (52% promoted, 28% recruited), and executive coaching (43% promoted, 21% recruited). This signifies that those looking outside of their company for a general counsel role need to work harder to gain requisite leadership experience and prepare for the broad challenges of the position.

According to the survey, one in four general counsel have worked with an executive coach and rated their experience as highly beneficial. Lawyers who have engaged with the senior advisors at BarkerGilmore consistently call out the coaching experience as a career game changer.

Finally, it is worth noting that approximately one-third of recruited general counsel learned about their position from an executive recruiter. If your goal is to become general counsel one day, it is vital to make connections with executive search consultants specializing in in-house counsel search. An experienced search consultant will provide an honest assessment of your potential, and if necessary, point out opportunities for growth and development or connect you with a coach who can fill any gaps. Since you never know when the right opportunity will present itself, being on the radar and staying informed of general counsel and general counsel succession opportunities is priceless.

Whether climbing the corporate ladder from within or considering a new organization, the journey to general counsel is enriched by effective leadership, strategic networking, and a commitment to ongoing professional development.

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