Six Lessons Learned from Legendary General Counsels

A few weeks ago, I hosted a webinar with three legendary General Counsels: Mike Fricklas, GC of Advance Publications and the former GC of Viacom; Lon Jacobs, former GC at Las Vegas Sands, Time Inc., and Newscorp/Fox; and Paul Cappuccio, former GC of Time Warner and AOL. Between them, the three have worked with Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, the Newhouse Organization, Summer Redstone, Gerald Levin, Jeffrey Bewkes, and Steve Case.

It was a fantastic conversation, filled with everything from behind the scenes tales from the trenches, to career tips. In this post, I’m sharing some of the key takeaways for anyone who couldn’t make it to the live event. While focused on General Counsel experience, the lessons are great ones no matter what industry you work in.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

1. You Must be Able to Adapt

If you want to truly be an effective leader, you have to understand the industry you’re in and the culture of the company you work for. Your ability to be effective will largely depend on understanding the environment you have to work within.

For example, one company might be more of a “command and control” environment. In this situation, a few top leaders make a decision on their own, and then send it out to everyone else for implementation. Contrast this with a relationship building environment. In this situation, everyone needs to come on board and reach a decision together. 

These are two completely different cultures that need vastly different management techniques from the GC. It’s important to note that neither one is better than the other. There are some industries that wouldn’t function well focused on relationship building, and others that would erupt if forced to work under command and control. The lesson isn’t to change the culture to fit your ideal – the lesson is to recognize what is at play, why it’s at play, and to adapt your leadership style accordingly.

Focus on understanding individual personalities, company culture, and the industry itself, and you’ll be far more successful than if you treat every job the same.

2. You Can’t be Everywhere at Once

When you’re working in a business as big as TimeWarner, it’s impossible to expect that you can be deep in the details of every single decision. However, you also can’t keep yourself constantly at a high-level, merely observing from afar. You have to be able to decide where your time is best spent, and make sure that you have a trusted team creating the right strategies for all the decisions you can’t be personally involved in.

In other words, critical thinking is paramount. Focus your energy and stamina on the issues that will most affect your company, and then do occasional deep dives into everything else to make sure that everything is running the way it should, with the right people in place to keep it doing so when you move onto the next item needing your attention.

3. Learn How to Expertly Assess Situations

As the General Counsel, most of the time your job isn’t to make the final decision, but to give others everything that they need to consider in order to make the best decision. You must become familiar with the entire company so that you can assess all situations, create realistic risk/reward scenarios, and then share that information with your leadership team. Your judgment will be one of your most valuable traits.

4. If You Want to Grow Your Career, Focus on Building Relationships 

The most valued firms tend to be those that both understand their client and have stood by their client through it all. There has to be trust on both sides, and that trust is built as both parties see they can rely on each other.

To help this process along, treat each client like your most important client, be there for them at any hour, and make expertise and honesty your trademarks. 

You also need to learn to adapt to the working style of your clients, and be able to communicate effectively with any one from the company. In order for you to truly do your job, everyone must be able to understand you so that you can help clients come to the best decision for any given situation.

5. Sometimes You Have to Leave to Advance

This takeaway came specifically from a question someone asked about how to become the General Counsel, but the advice applies to anyone in any career: first and foremost, be clear-headed and honest with yourself and others with what you’re trying to accomplish.

If this means being one day appointed as the General Counsel, you’ll be best served by:

  • Growing your career in other areas of law before joining in-house counsel.
  • Accepting positions that allow you to interact with other executives and with the board. You must develop relationships outside of the legal department if you want to become GC.
  • Recognizing that you might have to make a jump in order to advance. It’s rare to be an in-house, subject matter expert and be promoted to GC; for that to happen, you absolutely must be developing relationships outside of the legal department and become familiar with the entire company and industry.

6. Don’t Ever Forget the Phrase, “We’ll give it a try.”

Sometimes, the best thing you can tell someone is, “We don’t think it will work, but we’ll give it a try.”

Even if you are convinced the proposition in question will fail, you might get much farther with people if you honestly explain that, and then genuinely make the effort if that’s what they need. Even if you don’t succeed, you tried, and sometimes that makes all the difference between a satisfied client and a disgruntled one.

7. Advice to Live By

I want to thank Mike, Lon, and Paul for sharing these lessons learned from years of experience serving as the General Counsel for big companies under bigger personalities. If anyone’s interested in listening to the complete conversation, and getting all the details on what it’s like managing hundreds of lawyers and guiding executive teams, the recording can be found here

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