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CLOs Share 3 Career Growth Tips for In-House Legal Professionals

in-house legal professionals collaborating at desk

What does career growth look like for in-house legal professionals today?

One thing is for certain: the path to the top doesn’t have to be linear. For one thing, new roles and specialties continue to emerge, from legal operations specialists to legal chiefs of staff. For another, the figurehead of many legal teams is now a CLO, or Chief Legal Officer, rather than a GC – and these leaders aren’t always attorneys.

In a recent webinar, Ironclad’s own legal pioneer, Chief Community Officer, Mary O’Carroll, sat down with a pair of innovative CLOs about the role of the Chief Legal Officer, how in-house legal teams are evolving, and how legal professionals can chart a successful path to leadership in their own careers.

Watch the entire webinar here, or read on for a recap of these leaders’ top insights.

1. Grow your career with new experiences

Moderated by Mary O’Carroll, How CLOs are making an outsized impact in 2022 featured Carolyn Herzog, CLO at Elastic, and Michele Lau, CLO at GoDaddy. Together, the three C-Suite veterans dove into questions grouped around three major themes: career growth, how legal can provide value to the business, and planning for 2023.

Explore the world, learn from travel

Michele grew up in San Francisco around an extended family that believed strongly in travel as a form of education. Carolyn was working as a waitress in New York City when a letter from her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, implored her to, “Get off your butt and go do something.” In their own ways, both women’s families inspired them to see the world and seek new personal and professional experiences.

Once I had that reputation for being someone that wanted to learn more and try new things, opportunities started to come to me.

“I just had so many different experiences with people who enabled me to try new things,” said Carolyn, who counts Wisconsin, NYC, Washington, DC, France, and London among places she lived before heading to Silicon Valley with Elastic. “I think the theme is that a career isn’t a straight line,” she added.

Michele similarly credits family for shaping her life by instilling “the value of trying new things and exploring” in her as a child. After college, she worked for the Japanese government, attended Cornell Law, and worked both at a firm and in-house before joining GoDaddy in 2021. She credits her love of seeking out new experiences for some of her career growth. “Once I had that reputation for being someone that wanted to learn more and try new things, opportunities started to come to me,” she said.

The path to the C-suite is paved with curiosity

A recurrent theme throughout the webinar was the expansion of in-house legal leadership from general counsel to Chief Legal Officer. While the GC has traditionally led a company’s legal team and managed legal compliance and corporate governance, the newer CLO role expands to include more general business concerns as well. Among these include issues like social impact, corporate sustainability, DEI, and more.

As Michele explained, this broader purview demands a new level of intellectual curiosity. “The functions that many CLOs oversee, myself included, are really broad and varied, and that’s super challenging and very exciting at the same time,” she said. “The way that we contribute to the conversation in the C-Suite is more than a legal conversation.”

The way that we contribute to the conversation in the C-Suite is more than a legal conversation.

2. Provide value to the entire business

Webinar registrants could submit questions to the panel ahead of time. A popular line of inquiry asked how legal departments can and should demonstrate value inside their own companies.

The value of legal as a strategic partner

Carolyn advised starting with a broader view of the business beyond legal operations. “Determining value has to start with, ‘What are the objectives of the company? What are you trying to achieve? We have to connect our resources in the most effective, efficient way,’” she said.

Michele agreed, again underscoring the strategic value of the modern CLO. “There was a time when lawyers in particular would be heads down, focused on mitigating risk,” she added. “Now it really is about, how do you help be the strategic connector across the enterprise? How do you think about the external landscape and be a strategic business partner?” She brought it back to Carolyn’s earlier point, that it all starts with understanding the priorities of the company.

Both speakers noted that it’s up to modern legal leaders to proactively identify and track the insights their departments can share that will help the business, not to simply react to requests as they come.

Now it really is about, how do you help be the strategic connector across the enterprise? How do you think about the external landscape and be a strategic business partner?

Strong leaders build community

No surprise here, but leadership skills also topped the list of qualifications for a strong CLO. Given the CLO’s charter to partner with the entire business, and not just lead their teams, the panel agreed that a good leader must build a strong community. No one person is going to be expert in everything, they agreed, and surrounding yourself with quality people is vital.

One tip Michele shared was to have legal partners assigned to each department and ensure they join all key leadership and planning meetings. That way, they can fully understand the context of what is needed by each cross-functional team and bring those needs back to the legal department.

3. Plan for uncertainty

The final group of questions centered around the coming new year, and how our panelists are planning for 2023. Uncertainty was the common theme, with the current economic downturn casting a shadow over any and all plans. But a silver lining may exist when it comes to finding ways to deliver value on tight budgets: technology can help you innovate, even amidst constraints.

Work smarter with technology

The panel agreed that while the economy remains uncertain as we head toward 2023, investing in technology might actually be the smartest way to weather tight budgets and resource constraints.

As Michele explained, an economic downturn can actually be the right time to innovate with tech. “A lot of times the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Okay, we have to cut costs. We were going to make these technology investments, so we should just cut those now,’” she said.

The problem is, manual processes aren’t sustainable without more headcount. If your business relies on manual labor, and you’re not getting headcount during a downturn, you have to figure out how to work smarter. That’s where AI-powered technologies that automate manual processes can help.

“Work smarter, not harder in a time like this,” Carolyn said. While lawyers at firms just embarking on digital transformations are likely to worry about technology taking jobs away, in her experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “It’s going to make your job better,” she said. “It’s going to take away the stuff you don’t want to do, and there’s going to be a bigger need for lawyers just doing the right type of work.”

Both leaders agreed that delegating manual tasks to technology can allow legal professionals more room to focus on their own career development by freeing them to work on higher-level, more strategic projects.

Work smarter, not harder in a time like this.

Lead through complexity

Our three CLOs agreed that focus, empathy, and the ability to lead when things aren’t quite clear, are likely to be hallmarks of the best leaders in the coming year.

“I am mindful that we probably all have a number of members of our teams who weren’t working [during the downturns] in 2001 or 2008. So this actually may be the first time that they’re experiencing it. I try to keep that in mind because it can be scary,” Michele said. “Strategies for doing more with less are important, but so too is leading with empathy and a focus on keeping employees feeling engaged and included.”

Carolyn turned to a recent chat with an old World Bank colleague for one last piece of wisdom to help chart a course through whatever 2023 brings. “She used to say you don’t have to drink the ocean.” Instead, getting through complexity is about taking it one step at a time and sticking to the plan.

You can watch the entire webinar here. Thanks to Mary O’Carroll for moderating the discussion, and to Carolyn Herzog and our own Michele Lau for sharing their insights.

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