Rise of the Dual-Role GC: When Being Legal Chief Isn't Enough.

Rise of the Dual-Role GC: When Being Legal Chief Isn't Enough.

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When Megan Lutes joined 3D printer company Glowforge as general counsel last summer, she wasn’t expecting to take on additional roles outside the legal department. But, a few months into her new job, the Seattle-based startup’s chief human resources officer left and, suddenly, the CEO was asking Lutes if she wanted to serve as both GC and HR chief.

“I was feeling like, ‘Gosh, I’m not even done building my legal team. I don’t have our processes in place. That’s a lot to do to take on another organization. Does that make sense?’” she remembers.

Lutes, a former employment lawyer, also questioned whether serving as both GC and HR chief would give rise to sticky attorney-client privilege issues.

“In-house already has a gray line, because you’re often giving business advice and not legal advice,” Lutes says. “And is that going to be compounded when you’re also the head of a business org that’s not part of legal?”

“It’s been fantastic, actually,” she says. “I’m a huge fan of this movement.”

‘Be Careful What You Wish For’

Legal chiefs who have headed HR departments can rattle off a list of the many benefits of the arrangement, which are addressed later in this story. But they also caution that the dual-role life isn’t for everyone, including those who lack employment law backgrounds or HR training, though that can be remedied with relative ease.

“The best way to learn is to attend the HR conferences and HR roundtables,” says Mira Wolff, a seasoned dual-role GC and HR chief. She now serves as head of HR at commercial property firm Marcus & Millichap Inc. in Calabasas, California.

“I mean, it’s not rocket science. The people side is easier to learn than the legal compliance side,” she adds. “It’s learning, ‘What is employee engagement? What do you have to do to keep people interested?’ You need to understand about ‘meaning and purpose’ in the workplace and what ties people to a company.”

But Wolff also notes that “you’ve got to be a bit of a people person. Some people are very much, ‘Leave me alone, lock me up in my office with my computer and I’ll get my work done.’ That’s not going to make a great head of HR.”

Early in her career, Wolff attended a conference in Los Angeles where she met a panelist who served as GC and HR chief, which, at the time, was Wolff’s dream job. The panelist warned Wolff, “Be careful what you wish for. It’s really hard to be strategic when you’re in that role, because it’s too much.”

“And I was like, ‘I don’t care. That’s perfect. That’s what I want to be,’” Wolff says. “But she was right. When you finally get to that dual role, it is really hard to do both because they’re both such big roles. It’s possible to do both, but you’ve got to have strong lieutenants who can carry it out so that you can be completely strategic and not have to also do the tactical work.”

Lutes also stressed that GCs who serve in dual roles need trusted support staff who can handle day-to-day issues, allowing the legal-HR chief to focus on big picture matters and strategies. She notes that her five-member legal team is relatively large for the size of her company, but that’s because Glowforge’s executives understood her need for adequate support.

“Now, if you came to me and said, ‘I actually think you need a two-person team,’ and we kept handling all of these other things, it’s not going to work,” she says. “It’s one or the other: Legal gets resources and is treated as non-traditional legal, or legal is treated as traditional legal and you don’t give them all the other orgs.”

‘Makes It a One-Team Thing’

Of course, taking on more roles means more responsibilities and work, which could lead to GCs, who already have plenty to do in the legal realm getting overextended and, potentially, overwhelmed.

“It’s a move that’s not without its risks and those need to be weighed very carefully,” says Jason Winmill, managing partner of Boston-based legal department consulting firm Argopoint. “If there happens to be a major legal crisis, and also a crisis within their new realm of responsibilities, that can be dangerous.”

But GCs who extend their reach beyond the walls of the legal department gain a broader view of the business, strengthen their influence over the company, stand out as leaders and as potential candidates for other executive positions.

Filling multiple roles might also result in a pay bump, though that’s not guaranteed.

“A company may look for someone to serve in a dual role as a cost savings. Rather than hiring two expensive leaders, they can hire one expensive leader. Whether it results in more money for that one ‘expensive’ leader really depends on the pay rates at a particular company,” Wolff says.

“The real answer is that having both skill sets will make someone more employable and likely to beat out the candidates that don’t have the dual background for the higher-paying job,” she adds.

Another potential benefit of the dual-role GC: Lutes has discovered that she’s able to have more influence over certain initiatives that cut across legal and HR department lines, such as diversity, equity and inclusion.

“DEI and employment law have threads that are very close together. But I often found that employment lawyers are large obstacles to DEI initiatives because they bristle when they hear, ‘Let’s publish our numbers on how many underrepresented people we have,’” she says. “If you have everything under one org, you’re moving all the same things forward. It makes it a one-team thing.”

Will It Ever Be Too Much?

he general counsel role was expanding before COVID-19 arrived, but the pandemic caused many companies to lean more on their legal chiefs, especially for advice navigating novel issues related to office closures, contract renegotiations, remote work policies and mask mandates, among other things.

“The pandemic highlighted a GC’s versatile skills and broad operational muscle to manage quickly evolving COVID requirements and impact,” says Jessica Nguyen, general counsel for Seattle-based contract and data management tech startup Lexion.

“Now that the cat is out of the bag about a broader scope that a GC can handle well, I expect the GC workload to remain the same or grow,” she adds. “I’m also seeing GCs become chief operating officers with the people function reporting to them.”

Winmill, the Boston-based in-house legal adviser, also predicted that GCs will continue to absorb other functions, with or without the pandemic, though he’s waiting to find out where in-house leaders will excel and where they might fall short as they increasingly take on roles outside the legal department.

“This is a trend that we’re going to see continue into the future,” Winmill says.

“Legal executives’ core competencies may be well-suited to manage functions outside the legal department,” he adds. “But there may be situations where their competencies are not well-suited to manage functions outside of the legal department. Only time will tell how this will shake out.”

This article originally appeared on the Above The Law.

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