Your First 100 Days as General Counsel
No matter how many first days as in-house counsel you have, the nerves are the same. There’s excitement about new opportunities and anticipation of doing a great job. The learning curve that comes with joining a new company will be there, too, whether this is your first role or a repeat experience.
Your first 100 days as general counsel are your opportunity to set a strong foundation and make a good impression. You’ll be busy building relationships, understanding the organization, and finding ways to make an impact.
With so many moving parts, though, it’s a lot to manage. This guide breaks down proven strategies for a successful first 100 days as general counsel.
1. Audit the current legal processes
You’re not just general counsel; you’re a trusted, strategic business partner. Or, that’s what you’ll soon become. Lisa Lang, General Counsel at Kentucky State University, asked a client what they looked for in in-house counsel. The response? Partnership. The client shared he wanted more than legal analysis; they wanted someone that provides recommendations on how the organization should proceed.
Similarly, Olesja Cormney, Managing Counsel at Toyota Motor N.A., said,
“I want to be an integral part of my clients’ processes, their trusted advisor, strategic partner, and proactive collaborator. You don’t achieve that by being a ‘drive-through’ advisor. You must offer a full-service, dine-in experience.”
Being a strategic partner means you:
- Understand and support the organization’s future vision
- Act both legally and ethically
- Create systems to access and leverage useful contract data across the business, like a dynamic repository
- Make decisions and recommendations based on risks and opportunities
- Build relationships to enhance collaboration
Before you can do any of that, you need to understand where the legal process is now. Here’s how to audit the company as a new general counsel:
- Establish relationships with business leaders. Set up meetings with C-suite and leaders as soon as you can. Let them know you want to hear about their goals, fears, and plans, plus their perspectives on how you can help.
- Investigate any current litigation, investigations, mergers, acquisitions, or IPOs. Understanding ongoing projects will be helpful when it’s time to plan your priorities and work.
- Embark on a listening tour. Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel at Plaid, shared that “In three GC roles, I started with a listening tour. I shared my background and then asked my team and key partners: ‘What do you need from me?’”
- Review the company’s mission statement and values. “All companies choose a set of values that best define their corporate culture and operating philosophy, ” Joel Benavides, Head of Privacy, Corporate, and Commercial Affairs at Next Insurance, shared. Learning about your new organization’s values can help you make aligned decisions later.
- Assess the company for its largest risk factors. In addition to talking to leaders about the risks they perceive, review existing agreements and workflows to see what you spot. During your first 100 days, you’ll also need to gauge the company’s risk tolerance.
- Talk to existing counsel about their current workflows and challenges. Hearing your peers’ experiences lets you prioritize changes and fit into their workflow.
- Look for R.O.T. Legal “rot” includes repetitive, obsolete, and trivial records. Assess the state of contract records to determine what record types are business critical, what data is important to stakeholders, and evaluate your retention policy.
I want to be an integral part of my clients’ processes, their trusted advisor, strategic partner, and proactive collaborator. You don’t achieve that by being a ‘drive-through’ advisor.
2. Develop a roadmap for your department
After your legal process audit, you’ll likely have plenty of ideas. However, if you don’t set aside time for high-level planning and prioritizing, you could get swept away in everyday tasks.
“When I started, there was so much work to do: making sure that all of our documents were properly filed and indexed; ensuring that each and every agreement that came through was closely reviewed and edited; ensuring that we avoided litigation. The list goes on. I knew that I needed to focus on the mission-critical legal work that only I could do.
There are only so many hours in a day, so that meant cutting out the work that didn’t require my legal training. For example, for my first several weeks at GoFundMe, subpoena-related questions, NDAs, and contracts accounted for probably 70% of all of my incoming mail from within the organization. I’m talking about engaging in high-volume, routine tasks that really weren’t the best use of my time. So, the first thing that I did was build a process for responding to criminal and civil subpoenas. Eventually, I came up with an SOP and trained staff to process and escalate subpoenas as needed.”
During your first 100 days, you’ll plan how to balance immediate projects, process improvements, and the “someday” initiatives.
Here’s how to sort through the items on your department’s roadmap:
- Prioritize time-sensitive projects. Your focus should go to time-sensitive events like litigation, investigations, M&A, or IPO when applicable.
- Plan for defensive, offensive, and special projects. Greg Kondritz, Executive Vice President of Business Affairs and General Counsel for the Houston Texans, compares legal’s role to football. “The offensive aspect of the role consists of projects such as drafting and negotiating contracts to secure additional revenue for the team. The defensive aspect entails defending our organization against litigation, but also—and more importantly—identifying potential risks to the organization and implementing measures to mitigate that risk. Finally, the special teams part of the role encapsulates a variety of special projects, such as drafting new policies and protocols required by the NFL.”
- Create consistency to prepare for improvement. Harmonizing templates, unifying processes, and clarifying terminology are the first steps for transforming legal from a cost center to a strategic partner.
- Create standard operating procedures for high-volume, low-effort tasks. Every organization has routine legal tasks that take more time than they should. Documenting the current process gives you a starting point to help everyone deliver consistent work and find opportunities for improvement.
- Better yet, identify opportunities for a contract lifecycle management (CLM) tool. Consider how process improvements could support your department as you create your roadmap. CLM helps legal teams reduce risk, ensure compliance, learn from contract data, encourage collaboration, and gain efficiency.
I knew that I needed to focus on the mission-critical legal work that only I could do.
3. Make a plan for scaling your team
Part of your role as general counsel is advocating for the legal department and its growth. Jennifer Chung, Counsel at New Business Incubation at Verizon, has noticed a trend of lean legal teams. She shared,
“The buzz has long been about doing more with less, bringing more services in-house, and reducing overall headcount to save money. In-house teams are already experimenting with software and third-party services to manage documents, information, and other legal services that leverage A.I. and other analytics to increase efficiencies.”
Before you go asking for a budget for software or headcount, it pays to have a plan:
- Create playbooks and FAQs to save time. Ryan Loh, General Counsel at Bolt, said he has “always believed you should try to write yourself out of a job by creating a team and system that can survive without you. That could mean staffing up for specific expertise, distilling your judgment into playbooks the team can follow, or programming your negotiations into Ironclad so the commercial teams can self-serve.”
- Inventory your team’s current skills and interests. Everyone on your team brings unique skills, and it’s up to you to find gaps. Vivian Wexler, Director of Talent Management at Vantage Partners, suggests planning your career with the V.I.P. method, which considers your values, interests, and proficiencies.
- Consider asking for legal ops help. In a recent webinar about managing lean legal teams, Elliot Rozenberg, Vice President and Associate General Counsel at FabFitFun, said that he would focus additional budget or headcount on legal operations. “I think a lot of companies are still overlooking the importance of legal ops. It’s an area where companies that are looking to solve for inefficiencies should really be spending a lot of time.”
- Present your ideas in terms leadership resonates with. Sometimes buy-in hinges on how you present it. Chris Young’s advice is to “always put things in terms that your executive team will understand. Specifically: how will your request or decision impact the company’s bottom line? For example, at GoFundMe, I was able to secure the necessary financial resources to implement Ironclad because I demonstrated that my time was better spent navigating legal landmines and protecting the organization, rather than on administrative, contracts-related work.”
No budget? No problem. Our Strategies for Lean Legal Teams webinar has advice for you. Watch it here.
The buzz has long been about doing more with less, bringing more services in-house, and reducing overall headcount to save money.
4. Connect with your peers regularly
“I am an evangelist when it comes to looking at networking as THE mechanism for growing personally and professionally,” Jennifer Chung shared. Why does she feel so passionately about connecting with your legal peers?
“This world and profession can be terribly isolating. The industry of law is hyper-competitive and it’s not easy making friends when you’ve literally spent three years learning how to navigate an adversarial system.”
Making a conscious effort to learn from those around you and share your experience is incredibly rewarding, though. A community of peers helps you learn new strategies, innovate, commiserate, and build a reputation to advance your career.
Here are some networking opportunities to seek in your first 100 days as GC:
- Add value to those around you. Sometimes the first step of networking is the hardest, but you can start small. Tell a colleague about something new you learned, ask peers to share what they know, connect people in your network, offer advice, or simply be a supportive friend.
- Learn from people with different skill sets. When Mel Scott, Senior Counsel at Megaport, was getting ready to implement a CLM, she asked a project manager at her company for tips on planning a large project.
- Make meaningful connections on LinkedIn. You can reach out to people in similar roles at similar organizations. LinkedIn is also a valuable place to establish your personal brand.
- Attend legal industry conferences. Now that in-person events are back in action, there’s never been a better time to mix and mingle with your peers. Keep an eye on CLOC, ACC, and Consero for upcoming events near you.
- Join the Ironclad Community. Ironclad Community is the leading community of experts focused on unlocking the value of digital contracts. It is THE best place for education, networking, and career advancement in digital contracting.
The guiding principles of success
As you review the strategies for starting your journey as general counsel, there are a few recurring themes:
- Community. Listening and sharing keep you connected to your organization and peers so you can make the best decisions.
- Transparency. A lack of visibility into process is often why crossfunctional teams fear or dislike working with legal. New GCs can position themselves as trusted partners by helping teammates quickly and easily find the information they need to do their jobs effectively.
- Efficiency. You want to leave the role and organization better than you found, which involves improving processes.
Ready to put everything you’ve learned to use? We’ve created a timeline to help you hit milestones. If you have any remaining questions or want to hear from fellow general counsel, join the Ironclad Community to connect with your peers.
First 100 days checklist
- Reach out to business leaders to set up a time to talk about business priorities, strategies, and risks
- Embark on a listening tour
- Investigate any current litigation, investigations, mergers, acquisitions, or IPOs
- Review the company’s mission statement and values
- Assess the company for its largest risk factors
- Join the Ironclad Community
- Talk to existing counsel about their workflow and challenges
- Let your team and peers get to know you
- Plan for defensive, offensive, and special projects
- Harmonize templates and terminology
- Create standard operating procedures for high-volume, low-effort tasks
- Set short- and long-term goals
- Identify opportunities for a contract lifecycle management (CLM) tool
- Create playbooks and FAQs to save time
- Consider asking for legal ops headcount
- Inventory your team’s current skills and interests
- Make meaningful connections on LinkedIn
- Attend events, conferences, and meet-ups
- Present your ideas in terms leadership resonates with
- Add value to those around you
- Learn from people with different skill sets
Continue to learn & grow with Ironclad Community
The world of in-house legal is changing incredibly quickly—but we’re all in this together.
Join Ironclad Community to regularly connect with other innovative, forward-looking legal leaders. Share ideas, get advice from others in your shoes, get help filling open roles, and build your personal brand by attending or speaking at online and in-person events.
- 1. Audit the current legal processes
- 2. Develop a roadmap for your department
- 3. Make a plan for scaling your team
- 4. Connect with your peers regularly
- The guiding principles of success
- First 100 days checklist
- Continue to learn & grow with Ironclad Community
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Ironclad is not a law firm, and this post does not constitute or contain legal advice. To evaluate the accuracy, sufficiency, or reliability of the ideas and guidance reflected here, or the applicability of these materials to your business, you should consult with a licensed attorney. Use of and access to any of the resources contained within Ironclad’s site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the user and Ironclad.