The role of general counsel today is paramount to the success of everyone from the White House to corporations, nonprofits, and educational institutions.
General counsel must keep up with ever-changing regulatory rules in their industries as well as employment rules and regulations, negotiations and litigation; but as the term “general” implies, they will be involved in far more than just legal matters.
The list of duties they will be expected to perform and the relationships they’ll be expected to maintain are infinite. They will need to be calm under pressure, reassuring to others, keep the board apprised and appeased and have a can-do attitude at all times.
Given the critical importance of the position, letting a recruiter with a track record of finding the right general counsel candidate is money well spent. It’s not as easy as finding a new associate for a legal position, it’s about finding someone who holds the key to corporate survival.
Recruiting the right person for the job
Companies nationwide depend on the Fairport firm of Barker Gilmore LLC to provide them with highly qualified candidates. The unique business specializes in general counsel placement.
“It’s a different attitude today,” says Managing Partner John Gilmore. “A lot of old-time general counsels were a little rough.”
The general counsel of yesterday used to be the lawyer who dealt with legal issues and was more of a reactive than pro-active part of the business, he says.
More often than not they were incredibly smart and talented but did not have quite the gravitas and ability to communicate and establish relationships that are necessary for attorneys and clients.
“I refer to them as superhuman beings because they’re just as much a business professional as they are a legal professional,” Gilmore explains. “What gets them the job are the soft skills that really make a difference but aren’t on a resume. Most people think of someone cocky or arrogant but they’re not. They’re mission driven, thoughtful and they’re good mentors.”
Today the firm looks for someone with very high emotional intelligence, who listens well, is humble, enjoys the work and is calm and cool under pressure. They have a “don’t worry we’ll get through this” approach.
The Barker Gilmore team includes former Fortune 500 general counsels who make sure the general counsel candidate of today has what it takes. The team consists of those who have done the job before and know what it takes to succeed.
Barker Gilmore has been able to bring more diversity and underrepresented group members to the demanding role of general counsel. Over 60 percent of their placement in 2021 was a diverse group member. And while they may be diverse, they almost have to have the ability to walk on water. “We can’t waste the time of C-suite executives with people who don’t measure up,” Gilmore says.
Business is good for Barker Gilmore in part because the need for general counsel positions is greater today than ever before.
A lot of private equity companies buy other companies and need a general counsel for the company they’ve acquired, and it could happen frequently.
The Barker Gilmore placement success is high, 94 percent of the general counsel lawyers they have placed are still there three years later.The firm can help general
counsels build their law department as well. In addition to the rich and powerful corporate client, the firm works for nonprofit corporations, too.
A corporate general counsel’s experience
James Jenkins made partner at the firm of Harter Secrest & Emery LLP at the young age of 32. He was of counsel to the company he now works for, Transcat, Inc., for over 20 years.
Working at a law firm and counseling clients and boards on risk and risk assessment is a common general counsel training background.
“People don’t come out of law school and become general counsel,” he says. Jenkins was involved in board meetings and major decisions long before he became general counsel in September of 2020.
As general counsel, Jenkins wears many hats. The company has grown to over 1000 employees and trades on the Russell 2000. Based in Gates, it was incorporated in Ohio. It’s regulated by several federal agencies for the work it does calibrating instruments for companies that require extremely precise measurement.
The company’s laboratories are scattered across many jurisdictions. They have a Canadian operation and an Irish company. The laws of those jurisdictions are just some of the laws he must keep track of.
Employment laws are important, too, although he has a human resources attorney to help in that department. If an issue ends up going to court, he relies on his old law firm to handle the court appearance.
That still leaves him to face many issues alone.
“One thing lawyers tend not to be good at that general counsel must be good at is scalability of risk, he explains. “Lawyers get caught up on issues that aren’t significant at times.”
Understanding risk that includes operational risk and governance risk is important. “If the risk and true cost aren’t significant then move on,” he says.
Jenkins oversees all the company’s risk including media exposure. He cites Elon Musk as an example of someone who takes too much inappropriate media risk.
Mergers and acquisitions is a big part of his job at Transcat. He’s on the road for two thirds of the year talking to entrepreneurs who have built a company his company may be interested in acquiring particularly in aerospace and pharmaceuticals that rely on precise instrumentation. Checking in with the company’s labs keeps him travelling, too.
Meeting shareholder expectations and making sure those expectations aren’t overstated is important or there will be consequences, such as litigation, he says.
“I love my job and have a good relationship with the board of directors,” he says of a relationship that is crucial to a general counsel’s success.
As recruiter Gilmore says, when the CEO or the board isn’t 100 percent confident in their general counsel, it’s time to find a new general counsel.
It sounds difficult but it’s not when you report to a board or client whose mission you believe in says University of Rochester General Counsel Donna Gooden Payne.
Jenkins strongly believes in his company, too.
A non-profit private university general counsel’s perspective
Gooden Payne says her job is demanding but fun. “It’s the variety of activities universities tend to be involved in that make the work fascinating,” she says.
Like most of her general counsel colleagues, she’s been serving in a similar role for over 20 years.
The university’s unique work in health and patient care, research and development and many other areas make it attractive to employees. Problem solving with the people who do that work is a fulfilling aspect of Gooden Payne’s job.
It’s fulfilling, but also demanding. “We’re a large complex organization in a heavily regulated industry,” she says. That means there are always significant matters to reckon with.
“You have to be willing to tell people the truth and the truth can be painful,” she says of keeping her board apprised.
Health care and employment law regulations are heavily regulated areas that require general counsel attention at “any university that functions at this level,” she explains and will continue to be in the future.
New and unique challenges appear on a regular basis such as how to regulate drones or allow comfort animals in residence halls.
A big change she has seen for general counselors in higher education and large corporations alike is the effect social media has on the way they do business.
Institutional actions such as personnel decisions can be “judged harshly and very quickly. People aren’t as forgiving as before,” she says.
Education is expensive and important to students and their families. Expectations are extremely high that universities deliver in a big way.
It’s important to anticipate public reaction to an issue today and respond quickly to situations that may not have been widely questioned in the past, says Gooden Payne, who has been at UR since the fall of 2019.
As business, the world and the workplace changes, future general counsel generations can expect even more challenges. One thing that won’t change is their ability to calmly work through it.
Todd Etshman is a Rochester-area freelance writer.a