7 best practices to help you become a chief legal officer

Kara Wen | January 5, 2022 | Articles

The chief legal officer role is a natural next step for in-house counsel who want to be leaders, not just lawyers. And there’s good news for attorneys looking to move up: chief legal officers (CLOs) are currently in high demand.

The lawyers with the greatest chances for this C-suite promotion will have proven themselves as strategic business partners, team players, and engaged members of the company. Stand out from other applicants and take your legal career to the next level with these seven tips:

1. Hone your business acumen

Top-notch CLOs can advise on both legal issues and overall business strategy. Chief executive officers saw how valuable this combined business and legal advice was in the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they expect CLOs to continue applying a “business leader first, lawyer second” approach to their work.

You can set yourself up for success by taking a business course like the ACC Mini MBA or pursuing a full MBA or project management certificate. Take it from UMP Healthcare Holdings Limited GC Adam Au, who took a year off to pursue his MBA: “A lawyer with an MBA is far better suited to participate in, and make meaningful contributions to, strategic planning that dovetails with legal requirements in a company … It is very empowering for lawyers to be able to understand not only business terminology but how all decisions [are] made in the businesses.”

Develop further business knowledge by meeting with members of your company’s leadership team. Reach out and explain that you want to learn more about the corporate side to support your current role and future ambitions. You can also ask to sit in on a board meeting.

Once you get a meeting set up, ask them questions like:

  • What do you handle in a typical workday?
  • How does your work contribute to the bottom line?
  • What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the company?
  • What do you think are the greatest opportunities for the company?
  • How do you help set business goals and inform overall strategy to stay ahead of competitors?
  • How do you meet shareholder needs?
  • What is your working relationship with the CLO like?

Practice viewing your day-to-day work through this business lens. You’ll begin developing new insights and ideas that’ll make you a better attorney and a better CLO candidate.

2. Get familiar with legal analytics

Becoming a legal analytics expert is the best way to make strategic, data-backed recommendations. Advanced legal technology is a huge asset in this area. Even if your company uses legacy tech or spreadsheets, though, you can still start improving your analytics skills.

Since cost control is especially a priority for CLOs now, start your legal analytics journey by getting more familiar with legal spend data. Take a look at a few recent legal spend reports from your team and see which of the following key points were covered:

  • Total spend per time period
  • Budget vs. spend
  • Spend by vendor
  • Spend by timekeeper
  • Spend by practice area
  • Spend by matter
  • External spend vs. in-house spend

The greater the variety of different legal analytics your team tracks, the easier it is to find patterns or risks that can better inform the leadership team. If you notice missing data points or inaccuracies, bring it up at your next team meeting so you can work together to improve the collection and reporting process.

Learn more about using data for strategic decisions in this SimpleLegal blog post.

3. Seek out new projects and responsibilities

From ensuring compliance with new data privacy regulations to conducting valuation analyses for potential mergers, CLOs constantly pivot to address time-sensitive issues. By taking on unfamiliar territory and challenging yourself, you’ll build your ability to adapt and successfully tackle whatever comes your way.

See what you’re capable of and grow by:

  • Learning from in-house counsel about practice areas that are different from yours
  • Volunteering to take work off your peers’ plates if they’re overwhelmed (P.S., this is a great way to get hands-on training in new PAs)
  • Sharing more ideas in meetings
  • Ask your colleagues and boss for feedback on areas you can improve

4. Go the extra mile in learning and development

While you don’t need to be an expert on every legal issue to be a strong CLO candidate, it’s important that you show a desire to continuously learn and grow. As 31-year-old wunderkind general counsel Alicia Dietzen says, “No matter what profession you are in or how competitive it is, there is always a need for hardworking professionals that go above and beyond.”

Exceed expectations and expand your knowledge with these four recommendations:

  1. Find a mentor. No matter how many years of experience you have, you can benefit by learning from others in the industry. Reach out to a senior attorney or your CLO and ask if they’d be willing to have a 30-minute chat over coffee. It might feel uncomfortable, but they’ll most likely appreciate the opportunity to help and share their experience. And even if it takes some time to get a meeting on the calendar, they won’t forget the initiative you took to grow.

Be prepared to ask about their career path, what steps they took to get promoted, and what they might’ve done differently. You’ll also want to come ready to share any concrete steps you’re taking or plan to take to help you elevate your career.

  1. Take part in and lead CLEs and webinars. Sign up for programs on the latest legal strategies and trends (like data privacy and compliance) and CLO panels. If you have the bandwidth, putting on your own solo or co-hosted webinar is also a great way to make sure you know your subject inside and out. It’ll also help with your public speaking skills, and you can position yourself as an industry thought leader.
  2. Consume educational content that fits your learning style and interests. Everyone learns differently and has different skills to improve, so it’s important to find resources that work the best for you. Check out our lists of the best legal podcasts, legal blogs, and law books for a variety of suggestions.
  3. Strengthen your soft skills with an executive coach. BarkerGilmore found that “promoted general counsel that previously hired an executive coach were more likely to be promoted from within than those that had not hired an executive coach.” An executive coach can give you a valuable outside perspective on your strengths and weaknesses, help you define and achieve goals, and work to develop communication and leadership skills.

5. Cultivate strong collaboration across departments and vendors

Collaboration is key to a successful business. The CLO role involves making sure things are running smoothly between legal, other business units, and vendors, so business operations are aligned with executive leadership goals.

Catalyze better teamwork by reaching out to peers in sales and accounting. Find out if there’s anything you or your corporate legal department can do to make working together easier. This can be an easy fix, like establishing communication preferences (email, Slack, or a phone call). Some solutions, though, might require more time and resources, like investing in a single source of truth for all legal spend and vendor data.

“Being able to get law firm partners and in-house lawyers to collaborate with one another and present a unified and business-focused solution is much better than having to go out to many different specialists individually and then having to harmonize everything. – Jennifer Daniels, Colgate-Palmolive CLO

It’s also important to take ownership of your vendor relationships. Proactively communicate, acknowledge their hard work, and schedule meetings to discuss performance and how the partnership is going.

6. Take an active role in building a positive company culture

Executive team members like CLOs pave the way to create a workplace environment where everyone feels supported and connected. Strong leaders show their investment in their employees and the world around them.

Get involved in these three key areas to take care of your co-workers and community:

  1. Diversity and inclusion (D&I): As Forbes notes, diversity and inclusion at companies translates to stronger problem-solving skills and “increased productivity and employee satisfaction.” The legal industry has historically lagged in D&I work, but it’s become a priority for senior management to improve performance and contribute to social change. Help as a mentor or workshop coordinator if your department has an existing D&I program. If not, connect with your supervisor to see how you can help start one.
  2. Volunteering: Deloitte found that businesses that give back to the community have higher rates of employee retention than competitors. This sense of purposeful engagement is especially important for attracting millennials and Gen-Z workers. Demonstrate corporate social responsibility as a team by coordinating or participating in pro bono work or charity events like food drives or 5k fundraisers for non-profits.
  3. Team building: Positive relationships between co-workers contribute to better job performance and satisfaction. COVID-19 emphasized the importance of these personal connections, with many people missing the social elements of work. Whether you’re in-person or on Zoom, connecting with peers outside of work hours helps build camaraderie and a sense of unity. If your legal team seems disconnected, suggest meeting up for dinner, a virtual happy hour, or planning a fun department retreat.

7. Pay it forward by mentoring others

Just like being a mentee, acting as a mentor will help you progress on your career path. As AstraZeneca senior counsel Chris Sherwin, a participant in Mentoring Opportunities Shared Amongst In-House Counsel (MOSAIC), says, “A good mentor helps us to identify the best in ourselves and to find ways to develop.” Cultivating this kind of emotional intelligence is critical for executive team members, who need to know how to listen and lead with empathy. Mentoring also shows that you’re a team player.

If you have the bandwidth, you can sign up for a formal mentoring program like MOSAIC or ACC Mentoring to get matched with a mentee. And if you can’t commit to regularly scheduled meetings, informal mentoring is still a great way to learn and give back — especially to junior attorneys from underrepresented groups in the legal industry. Check in with new attorneys and let them know you’re here to help. Knowing they have someone they can turn to is reassuring, and you can often organically build deeper relationships just by reaching out your hand.

If you want to be a chief legal officer, you have to understand legal ops

As an aspiring chief legal officer, you’ll set yourself up for success by continuing to push out of your comfort zone, raising the bar for yourself and those around you. This includes developing a deep understanding of how to best empower non-attorneys working in legal ops.

While you probably work closely with legal ops members, you’re most likely unfamiliar with how to plan a roadmap to help the department grow and succeed. Learn how with our Legal Ops Maturity Model whitepaper.