Outlook for the Chief Legal Officer Role

by Beverly Harvey

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a Chief Legal Officer

What’s the difference between a Chief Legal Officer (CLO) and a General Counsel (GC)? The primary difference is that most Chief Legal Officers report directly to the CEO while a General Counsel does not. While not all CLOs report to the CEO, however, in Fortune 500 companies, 93 percent of Chief Legal Officers have a direct reporting line to the CEO. CLO is the newer and more contemporary title of the two. In Europe, the CLO often serves as an advisor to the executive committee instead of being part of the C-Suite, notes Piet Hein Meeter, global managing director of Deloitte Legal, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.

Frequently a publicly traded company’s most powerful legal executive, the (CLO) is a leader whose expertise helps an organization minimize its legal risks by advising officers and board members on significant legal and regulatory issues the company faces, such as litigation risks. Up until recently, this mandate has been roughly the same for both GCs and CLOs.

But the roles are diverging. As Steve Feyer notes on the blog of Apttus, a firm that helps companies modernize their revenue and legal operations, “the GC may concern himself or herself only with the legal matters of the organization, while the CLO is concerned with connecting those legal matters to the broader objectives of the organization.”

Indeed, recent research shows that CLOs highly value being well positioned to influence corporate strategy. The 2019 ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey reported that …

  • CLOs who report to the CEO are more often sought for their input on business decisions than those who do not.
  • CLOs who report to the CEO are more likely to frequently attend board meetings.
  • CLOs have a strong track record in leading compliance efforts, as noted later in this article.

A real-life illustration about how this wholistic approach can play out can be seen in an interview with Ritu Vig, Chief Legal Officer at SP+, who reveals this turning point in her corporate-law career: “Ultimately, I realized what I am passionate about is using the legal function to drive growth in a business. The traditional mindset is that the law department is a cost center to mitigate risk. But it’s a lot more than that, and there’s an opportunity to understand the business in a unique way.”

In an attempt to clarify the difference between the CLO and GC roles, the Association of Corporate Counsel gathered opinions from members of its subgroups. Echoing the emphasis on strategy throughout the whole organization, one respondent said, “the CLO title signals a focus on the role of the legal department’s top lawyer to lead a team or set a tone that focuses on providing business solutions to problems, rather than just legal analysis.” Another respondent speculated that the Chief Legal Officer title is especially used in companies that are subject to regulatory language that specifically mentions “Chief Legal Officer.”

A Deloitte report, The four faces of the chief legal officer, identifies the Chief Legal Officer’s role as Catalyst, Strategist, Guardian, and Operator. Ken Avery, director of Deloitte’s CLO Program, describes today’s CLO as “more than accomplished attorneys; they have a broad view of the business, industry, and company strategy, and manage a staff of senior attorneys that is expected to take that same broad view.”

Key Competencies for the Chief Legal Officer Role

The CLO role typically requires a law degree, obtained after earning a bachelor’s degree in business law or pre-law studies. Undergrad coursework recommendations to prepare today’s CLO from the site Legal Career Path include cyber law, international law, argumentation theory, public speaking, communication courses, communication law, symbolic logic, and an introductory course to legal practice. The site also suggests pursuing internships during undergraduate coursework to gain experience in the field.

Once in law school, the best focus area for the CLO path is corporate law; Legal Career Path advises courses in intellectual property law, corporate governance, corporate finance, public company disclosure, corporate professional responsibility, and advanced corporate transactions.

In your career-marketing communications, showcase the Chief Legal Officer competencies and characteristics on this list you possess:

  • Effective verbal and written communication
  • Exceptional leadership skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Exemplary negotiation skills
  • Problem-solving skill
  • Advocacy aptitude and experience
  • Business acumen
  • Corporate governance expertise
  • Crisis-management ability
  • Integrity and sound ethics
  • Management skills (including coordinating internal and external resources)

Level-Up Tips

Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the Chief Legal Officer role, expand their horizons in an existing Chief Legal Officer role, or even rise beyond the Chief Legal Officer role:

  • Emphasize the compliance track record for CLOs: The 2019 ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey cites a study that found that companies whose CLOs are among the top five compensated officers have a 50 percent reduction in compliance failures compared with companies where CLOs were not among the top five compensated officers.
  • Connect metrics to key corporate objectives. On trend with the concept of CLO as whole-organization strategists, CLOs are advised to use metrics to tout their team’s performance.
  • Go for the “hot” areas. Areas of corporate law that are especially in demand and could position you well as a CLO include privacy, compliance, and regulatory affairs. “Chief legal officers are become increasingly valuable to companies throughout the world amid growing concerns about new regulations,” says the 2019 Association of Corporate Counsel CLO Survey. Of issues most likely to influence company decisions, CLO survey respondents cited regulation more than any other issue. Beefing up technology skills can’t hurt either. “Lawyers have a reputation for being technology-averse,” notes the writer of the Apttus blog, “but this often is not true – and it certainly should not be true for a CLO. Embrace all the value-added technologies available to you and promote the positive effect they have on your organization.”
  • Take the initiative. In a Deloitte report entitled “Own your space: Leadership advice from a trailblazing Chief Legal Officer,” retired CLO Susan Blount advises going beyond the requirements of one’s job to the point of “anticipating questions, adjusting strategies, and identifying opportunities for cost savings and client education without being asked.” This process of “owning your space,” as Blount calls it, shows that the “rising leader is adding value to his or her organization beyond technical legal skills and is personally taking charge of his or her career.”

Chief Legal Officer Trends to Watch

  • CLOs are being asked to do more with less. “Legal departments are being asked by the business to become more global, counsel leadership about new developments, and be more transparent about the value they deliver to the organization,” Deloitte’s Meeter asserts, noting that the departments are simultaneously mandated to be more efficient and reduce costs.
  • Not just cost-saving, but revenue-producing. Deloitte’s Avery observes that CLOs are finding their departments are not just being asked to reduce costs, “but in some sectors, legal departments are expected to be more than a cost center.” Avery points, for example, to monetization of intellectual property “to generate revenue and contribute to an organization’s overall financial results.”
  • Sustainability is an emerging area of concern for CLOs. CLOs and their teams are playing increasingly significant roles in sustainability – and even leading sustainability efforts, reports the 2019 ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey. “CLOs outpace the CFO and chief operating officer (COO) when it comes to direct oversight of sustainability teams or individuals,” the report states.

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