This discussion was held on Thursday 26 February 2015, at The Law Society. The meeting was conducted under the Chatham House rule. It was attended by general counsel representing a range of FTSE organisations. This précis provides an overview of the key points discussed.

The discussion focused on three key areas: 

  1. Career progression within the legal team
  2. GCs on the board
  3. Progression from GC to CEO

The meeting was led by Catherine Dixon, CEO of The Law Society. Catherine began her in-house career as head of legal at Bupa, subsequently moving into the role of commercial director at Bupa Care Services. Catherine spent some time working in Canada before returning to the UK as the general counsel and company secretary at the NSPCC before becoming chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority. She joined The Law Society as chief executive in January 2015éé.

Career progression within the legal team

  • The size of legal team and available roles will often mean that there are limited opportunities within a legal team. Career progression for some can mean moving into general management roles.
  • People may be developed for opportunities outside of the organisation.
  • Keeping in contact with alumni can be very valuable for any organisation.
  • Training and development of legal staff across a range of skills is important - for example, it can be very helpful for the in-house legal team to understand the numbers and to be able to speak the same language as finance and other departments.
  • Secondments within and outside the organisation can be very valuable. Swaps with colleagues in private practice can be mutually helpful.
  • Different individuals have different ambitions. Some may be very career focused and always looking to progress either within the legal function or into general management roles others may not. A one size fits all approach will not work.
  • Focused mentoring/coaching can be very valuable providing it is has clear aims and objectives.
  • Ensuring team members have the opportunity to work on a range of diverse projects can be very helpful.

GCs on the board

“We are analytical as solicitors which makes us great problem solvers. We can be very innovative in finding solutions and in bringing about changer. We are also good at assessing risk and taking a view. Sometimes however we can feel uncomfortable with the numbers and defer to our colleagues. Being seen to be competent with numbers can be important. If we and out colleagues embrace our ability to solve complex problems through innovative thinking we can immense add value to multi-disciplined teams.”

Catherine Dixon

  • The most effective boards are be comprised of a range of different skill set.
  • It should be a given that the GC is the legal expert. But it can be important that the GC does not pigeon-hole themselves as just being this. When the GC is viewed only as a lawyer, there is a danger that they will only be called upon to give views on legal issues. Most GCs will have a wide range of experience and can contribute more to the Board.
  • Lawyers have a range of skills that, when applied appropriately, can be enormously valuable to commercial decision making.
  • Although she retained responsibility for the legal function, Catherine changed her job title at Bupa to Commercial Director. This helped to change the perception externally and (internally) that she was just a legal expert.
  • Whatever the means, it is incumbent upon the individual to create a reputation for rounded business acumen.

“Some in-house lawyers pigeon-hole themselves into a legal expert category. Personally, I have tried to avoid that. You will have a view on a wide range of issues, not all of them legal, your view is as important as anyone else’s. At Bupa I had a commercial director title. Personally, because of the wide range of commercial work I was doing I found it helpful to take “legal” out of the job title.”

Catherine Dixon

  • Most back office functions are not revenue-generating areas – for example, HR and finance – however, the Director of Finance and Director of HR will generally have a place on the board.
  • The GC role can add value to the organisation and has a legitimate expectation to attend the board meetings
  • Gaining experience as a non-executive director or trustee of a charity can provide very valuable experience.
  • Often there is an executive committee that sits below the board. Obtaining a place on this committee can be an excellent way of gaining experience and demonstrating expertise and capability.
  • The legal function reporting through the finance function can often be damaging to the status of the GC. It is important that the GC is seen as a peer to directors across the business.
  • Much more common for US boards to include the GC. This could be partly because of a more litigious environment and perhaps partly because GC’s are not considered to have a wide range of skills.

Progression from GC to CEO

“For me, doing an MBA was very helpful It gave me a broader understanding of other functional areas and enabled me to speak/understand the language of colleagues particularly the numbers.”

Catherine Dixon.

  • Experience on boards is essential.
  • Learn from others.
  • Need to be perceived as a vital member of the Executive team with a broad range of business skills, not just the legal expert.
  • GC’s should push to take on responsibility for a wide range of business areas, particularly those that are outside the legal comfort zone.
  • Demonstrate that legal skills can be transferable to other areas of the business.
  • Must understand the numbers.
  • Moving from GC to CEO is a gradual process. It can be challenging to move directly into a mainstream CEO role.