During the past 30 years the Chief Legal Officer (CLO) role has gone through a gargantuan revolution. Few legendary figures know more about these historical shifts than Benjamin W. Heineman Jr., a pioneer in this field who was General Electric´s former senior vice president for law and public affairs and is currently a senior fellow at Harvard Law School.
Heineman Jr. lived firsthand when the faintest of inklings indicated that something big was changing. He was one of the first to see the great opportunity as it was and accepted to be part of in-house counsel. Other pioneers include James L. Lipscomb, Thomas Sabatino, Jeff Kindler and PD Villareal. Until then, respected lawyers were basically only partners at prestigious law firms as the corporate counsel role was not perceived as interesting or important. The role of the in-house lawyer grew in depth and scope. It was becoming an important position in various leading edge international corporations. The idea that to have a successful career as a lawyer you had to follow the grind at a law firm and become a partner began to shift. Now, you could be lawyer at a company and grow into a head position such as a VP Legal or Chief Legal Officer with all the respect and perks that only firm partners had previously enjoyed. In the book, The Generalist Counsel, its authors Prashant Dubey and Eva Kripalani illustrate this wonderfully, “This shift in leadership of the profession mirrored the shift to the General Counsel’s leadership role in business. By the mid 1990’s, General Counsel were more frequently reporting directly to the CEO and regularly assuming a place at the leadership table with the CFO and a line of business leaders.”
The trend grew and the role changed, and Chief Legal Officers became trusted, desired advisors. They went from being merely guardians and individuals responsible for risk assessment to being leaders of influence. In-house counsel at companies gained a seat at the table. The rage caught on, and various partners at distinguished law firms started quitting their partnerships to become Chief Legal Officers at Fortune 500 corporations in the United States (key financial cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, among others). Afterwards this tendency caught on in other locations including various European and Asian countries.
Currently, the increasing level of responsibility and sphere of influence has made the CLO’s role more nuanced. Day in, and day out CLOs are being asked to tackle more challenges and to achieve more with limited resources. As key stakeholders in the decision-making process in each of their corporations, they are juggling a myriad of activities that require complementary skills that are not often taught in law schools. It is no longer enough to have great technical legal knowledge, a high level of intelligence and knowing the correct people in order to succeed as an in-house counsel lawyer.
Chief Legal Officers can be compared to mighty warriors. The Britannica Dictionary defines a warrior as, “a person who fights in battles and is known for having courage and skill.” Warriors are brave women and men that are trying to accomplish multiple tasks at the same time just as Chief Legal Officers. They are expected to be involved in the legal aspects of the job but also to integrate other responsibilities that have not been handled by a lawyer. They must help drive the growth of the company by managing liabilities and risks, having a handle on the current threats in the sectors they are in, dealing and solving crises, obtaining and managing resources, etc. In order to succeed, CLOs are required to develop multiple skills and competencies not taught at law school. These include an aptitude for business and operations, a solid grasp of team and project management, well-developed leadership and communications skills among many others. Additionally, they may have to be knowledgeable in different areas of the law including the following: commercial, corporate governance, compliance, regulatory, labor, litigation, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property ,real estate, among others (depending on the industry of the company).
The disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic created only made things more challenging for the CLO. COVID-19 added more pressure to the role (monitoring and motivating teams, adapting work to focus on new technology, dealing with mental health issues of different individuals within the company which were brought on by the pandemic, adjust to work from home and then to a hybrid model, having breaks in supply chains, among others).
Nevertheless, as mighty warriors, successful Chief Legal Officers have proven highly resilient, resourceful and intelligent, as well as highly adaptive. These lawyers are unique and tenacious. The pandemic has driven them to strengthen their interpersonal skills – sharpening their insights related to business and financial acumen further. This will help them to successfully navigate current and future challenges.