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Vertical learning curves and career highlights: What it's really like to be an interim GC

The challenges of managing a team and contributing to the business in an interim role motivated one general counsel to continue down the path of pursuing alternative working options for another year.

Management issues are more complex in an interim postion Rawpixel

I was always someone who had a plan. I always knew exactly which  role I wanted next, one that could broaden my experience and give me the next stepping stone to my ultimate position...well that was, until I hit a stumbling block.  I had a serious skiiing accident and, for the first time in my life, needed to take time out to get my health back.  I love the outdoors and sports and the idea of not being able to ski, run or cycle again was not an option.  I knew with absolute certainty that something in that moment needed to change.  Even the perfect job wouldn’t compensate for being unable to do the things I loved. So, having spent over 12 years in private practice and in-house roles running deals, teams and regulatory issues, I decided to take a break from the pace, stress and politics and gave myself some time to get back to health.  I left my job and took 3 months off.

What on earth next?

As I sat in my garden thinking 'What on earth next?' I reached out to friends, colleagues, former colleagues and head-hunters.  I applied for permanent jobs and even took a trip to the Middle East to see what was happening on the ground there. Then a former colleague who had worked as an interim lawyer dropped me a line and recommended I try freelancing for a while.  I could choose the roles I would be interested in and also the businesses which I might like.  At first, the idea seemed like it wasn’t for me.  I like security and a pay-check guarantee plus I had a mortgage to pay.  I thought my only option was to just jump straight back onto the career ladder and the next big permanent role.

Why not?

But then I thought 'Why not?' -  it could bring in the cash whilst I worked out what the next step was. It also offered me the chance to experience working in a different way and work out whether it was right for me.  So, I met with Lawyers On Demand (LOD) and chatted to them about my experience.  To my surprise, I was told that LOD not only attracts lawyers at associate and senior associate level, but they also had roles heading up teams of lawyers as well as the occasional GC position.  In fact, and to my surprise, there was a GC assignment on offer right there and then. The role was within a company which had grown massively over the past 10 years and which had an impressive management team.  Not only would I be doing interesting work, there was a rumour of an acquisition afoot and I would also be part of the Executive team.  I met with the HR director the next day and was then taken straight in to meet the deputy CEO (I hadn’t been expecting that!).  I got an immediate feeling that I wanted the assignment and I joined straight away.

Climbing the vertical learning curve

As I was coming in to support the business at a very senior level on very short notice there was a vertical learning curve to climb.  Not only were there names and faces to remember, there was a team to run, a board and a senior management team to navigate and high expectations to meet. Then there was a deal which suddenly started to move and move fast....The next thing I knew I was flying to Milan and negotiating with Italian lawyers on a transaction which I needed to understand very quickly: what had been negotiated to date, what the structure was and what was important about the corporate history of the business.  

The light bulb moment

Two months came and went in a flash - I’d been so busy, but I was loving it.  Working harder and longer hours than normally would be expected from an LOD lawyer somehow didn’t seem as painful as it had in previous permanent jobs where my bed had become a stranger for weeks on end.  Perhaps the reason was that (as I realised in my big light bulb moment) I could come in, be myself, and simply get on with the task in hand.  When you know you are somewhere to perform a job for a shorter period of time that is what you do.  I’m not saying you don’t have to be polite, work out the lay of the land and make sure you deliver, but the politics of a permanent job don’t get in the way.  I was also lucky that LOD had judged the fit between me and the client so well – we found working together very easy. 

The challenges  

I think the key issues which you face coming in at this level are that you really are part of the Executive team - what you do and don’t do has consequences.  You need to not only think about the deliverables for the length of your assignment, but also how you can keep your team motivated during a period of change, and also how you support the management of the business for both the short and the long term. Some of the difficulties I faced were probably mostly connected to team management.  I knew the impact of uncertainty on teams only too well, but the frustration at times can be that you will not be leading the team on a permanent basis.  Reassurance is probably the key piece of support you can give.  It is not within your power to start recruiting or structuring the team, as that would be for the permanent role.  It was also doubly hard for me to support my team in the UK as I found myself working in Italy a lot trying to deliver and close a deal.

I think the other key aspect for me which I needed to get my head round was how the lawyers in different jurisdictions, including Germany, Poland and other countries, reported in to this role.  This included not only in-house lawyers but also external counsel. The key to this was building rapport quickly and understanding the history behind relationships - what worked well and what perhaps didn’t work so well.  I had to figure out how to work within that framework, whilst influencing some change over a short period.

In-house vs private practice experience

In terms of whether such a role would be suitable to private practice lawyers or in-house counsel, I would wholeheartedly say from my experience to date that my in-house roles were the most relevant.  I’d worked in a FTSE 250 and undertaken deals there, gaining a totally different perspective from private practice. I’d also worked in a FTSE 30 business and managed a large team through quite a few changes, so that helped me manage the people aspects better.  I am a firm believer that you can learn the legal issues in private practice, but when it comes to management of teams and answering to and supporting senior colleagues, you can only get these skills from being in-house.  So, as I come to the end of this assignment, I can honestly say it has been the best experience of my whole career.  I have loved the challenge, the pace and the need to learn quickly.....but most of all I have loved working with such a great team and will be very sad to leave. In terms of “What next?” (again!), I’d like to pursue alternative working options for another year.  

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30 January 2015

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