as risk averse, seen as the “no” person
or “deal breaker.” In order to succeed
in operations or as an entrepreneur,
what skills do you believe lawyers: ( 1)
need to develop; and ( 2) what skills or
habits do they need to drop (if any)?
“Lawyers in law firms have the most
difficult time transitioning. Usually,
it will only happen if a client recruits
them to leave the firm. In-house
lawyers, on the other hand, can take
two paths: being the pure in-house
counsel (usually known as the person
who says ‘no’ to everything), or being
the pragmatic lawyer who takes an
interest in the actual business and
the people running it and is seen to
look for solutions while protecting
the company. Having the respect of
peers, as someone who truly understands the business and its competitors, is key.”
In your case, taking into account your
career trajectory: What do you think was
the greatest factor that allowed you to
succeed, and what advice would you give
lawyers who aspire to the CEO role?
“I think having a genuine interest in
the business operations, the competitive landscape, and making that knowledge known and valued is key. It’s not
for everyone, however. I would always
be reading analyst reports and other
materials with a business hat and not a
lawyer hat. Thereafter, I developed the
ability to wear two hats at a time.”
Finally, why do you think we don’t see
more lawyers becoming CEOs or as
entrepreneurs in general (as opposed
to engineers, etc.)?
“Lawyers take the safe route: law
school, articling, comfortable salary
moving from associate to partner:
all low risk. Entrepreneurs are the
This touches on an earlier point
Sacca made in relation to the culture
of law firms. This safe, low risk route
is something lawyers are reluctant to
deviate from and translates into taking
risks in operational roles.
Garber’s practical, hands-on experience from a private practice laywer
to CEO of one of the largest gaming
websites in the world offers a lesson.
Namely, being the “pragmatic lawyer” and “having the respect of peers
as someone who truly understands
the business and its competitors is
key.” Moreover, his assessment that
the trajectory is not for everyone is
something I have seen time and time
again. I’ve witnessed too many lawyers
who move in-house who are unable to
28 ASSOCIATION OF CORPORATE COUNSEL
Tools for lawyers seeking to make the transition into a management role
A SEAT AT THE HEAD OF THE TABLE: FROM LAWYER TO CEO?
It’s about seeing everything through a lens tinted
“no” and transitioning to a worldview that starts
with “yes,” even if the next question is, “how?”
I have witnessed both general counsel and outside counsel
debating endlessly with a CEO over a decision, which
they labeled impossible — without attempting to find a
solution or compromise. This serves no purpose except to
guarantee that the legal department will be less involved
the next time around and with greater reluctance.
“Having the respect of peers as someone who truly
understands the business and its competitors is key.”
Understand the business from A to Z. This begins with
joining meetings, which you may not be involved with
directly, in order to ask questions. It also involves looking
at the matter from your colleague’s point of view, be it
through approving and reviewing agreements, or structuring
a deal. Understanding the business and what is important
will allow for better decisions to be made for the greater
good — without compromising legal obligations.
“First, transition to work for a company in a business
development or operational role and go from there.”
The education, early years, and continual efforts to be
a valuable attorney require a tremendous amount of
energy and sacrifice. Depending on the company size and
industry, moving into an operations role may mean that
you will be replaced as general counsel. Before embarking
on a new career, spend some time in operations. Attend
meetings, listen in on calls, etc. This way, you can be
absolutely sure that the move is both a good fit and
something you can see yourself doing for the long run.
Use your existing tools.
Lawyers do not lack the qualities or assets that can prove
useful for a company, including the ability to read and
analyze large amounts of content, filter out trivial matters,
and develop a strong work ethic, which is often instilled
early on. Other skills like email etiquette (including response
time and organization) are often revered in companies.
Make the most of your opportunities.
Sometimes, your seat is at the center of the table — next
to the CEO, board members, heads of departments, and
the most important clients or partners of the company.
If your ambition is to move on from a purely legal role,
this is the greatest opportunity to show your skills. Given
your understanding of the business from all angles,
your input will likely be fresh and unique. Give it.