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How to Land a Board Seat as a General Counsel: Advice From Seasoned GCs and Board Members

Three roundtable attendees engaged in conversation at The L Suite's Fullstack conference in 2023.

Wondering how to get on a board as a general counsel? Here's what to focus on, how to determine your value proposition, and where to start your networking efforts.

Authors

  • Desirina Frew

    Senior Manager, Content & Social Marketing

Career & Brand Building

Featuring Insights From:

People

  • Danielle Sheer

    Position
    Chief Legal and Compliance Officer
    Affiliation
    Commvault
    Danielle Sheer, Chief Legal and Compliance Officer, at Commvault
  • Marla Persky

    Position
    Member of the Board of Directors
    Affiliation
    Panavance Therapeutics, Revolo Biotherapeutics, Xeris Pharmaceuticals & YGEIA Group
    Marla Persky, Member of the Board of Directors at Member of the Board of Directors @ Panavance Therapeutics, Revolo Biotherapeutics, Xeris Pharmaceuticals & YGEIA Group

As a GC, you're skilled at distilling vast amounts of information into actionable insights. You're an expert in risk management, regulatory minefields, and compliance matters. As the GC at a tech startup in particular, you know the ins and outs of digital transformation — and the accompanying challenges like cybersecurity concerns.

All these qualities make you uniquely suited to serve on a board of directors too. But if you're interested in pursuing a seat, you'll need to showcase more than just legal expertise. We’ve gathered insights from two GCs who now sit on several boards, including Marla Persky, who recently spoke to The L Suite on the topic, and Danielle Sheer, Global Chair of the Board at The L Suite, who sits on six other corporate and nonprofit boards.



Key Takeaways:

  • GCs are increasingly sought-after board members — not just because of their legal prowess but also for their wide-ranging strategic and risk-analysis skills and experience with crisis management and corporate governance.

  • To join a board, showcase your unique value proposition, which could be a combination of industry specialization, practice area, or deep knowledge of specific issues.

  • When seeking a board seat, tweak your CV and LinkedIn to include “board-specific” experience that highlights accomplishments over responsibilities.

  • Certain companies may be more receptive to having lawyers and GCs on their boards. Look for companies (and CEOs) who understand that law and regulation can be a competitive advantage, as well as emerging legal tech companies.


Are GCs Attractive Board Members?

Boards are increasingly interested in adding GCs to their ranks. A few reasons why include:

  • Strategic expertise: GCs have a broad view of the business, from corporate governance and strategic planning to mergers and acquisitions and ESG.

  • Crisis management: GCs' ability to navigate complex issues under pressure makes them critical assets during times of organizational stress.

  • Diverse perspectives: Board diversity has become a priority for many companies in recent years. “Diversity isn't just gender, race, and age. It's also by background and experience,” said Persky.

  • Risk management: “The landscape for governance and privacy and cybersecurity has changed, elevating those issues as key enterprise risks,” said Sheer. “That expertise has been missing on boards, and we are going to see that change.”

Persky also noted that companies in highly regulated industries or organizations facing persistent legal challenges are even more keen to add a GC as a director. “A company that realizes that law and regulation can be used for competitive advantage as opposed to guardrails, those are the kinds of atmospheres that will be more open,” she said.

That said, GCs seeking board seats must be able to check their legal hats at the door, said Sheer. “You are not there to be the company's general counsel — though you can be a mentor to their GC, you are there to use your skill set to help management advance their program and use your expertise to help create long-term value for all shareholders.”

How Does Serving on a Board Serve GCs?

Not only can serving on a board broaden your network and expose you to new challenges, but it can also enhance your leadership skills and strategic-thinking capabilities.

“One of the great personal benefits that comes from serving on a board is the self-awareness that comes when the tables are turned as you’re a receiver of information, and not the presenter,” said Sheer. She says that sitting on other boards has changed the way she presents to her company’s board as Chief Legal and Trust Officer.

“I’ve learned that less is more. The best board meetings I’ve been part of, both as a CLO and as a director, are discussions and not multi-hour read-outs and updates, but rather where management is seeking advice and counsel from directors based on their experience and expertise.”

Despite the benefits, it’s worth weighing the pros and cons of serving on a board: Is it something you actually want to do? Or simply a box you feel you should be ticking?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I realistically commit the time? (“If you’re already working 70 hours a week, committing to quarterly meetings of at least 3 full days [travel included], hours of prep time, committee service, and dealing with the unexpected may not be doable – you owe the company of whose board you will sit your time and attention that can’t take a backseat to your 'real job',” said Persky.)

  • Who/what am I doing this for? If the answer is anything other than yourself/your personal fulfillment/career goals, reevaluate.

  • What do I stand to gain from joining a board? Think about this one from both a personal and professional standpoint.

How to Get on a Board as a GC

Below are four proactive steps to bring you closer to the boardroom.

1. Determine Your Value Proposition

The first step for how to get on a board as a lawyer or GC is to showcase you're more than just a legal mind. “You need to know your value proposition. Why would that board be better having you on it than somebody else? What do you bring to the table?” said Persky.

Hers, she went on, is being an expert in the pharma and biopharma space. She has experience helping shepherd companies in highly regulated industries through various growth phases — including international growth, R&D, and acquisition.

For a GC in a niche space like a blockchain company, the value proposition might look completely different — it could be deep knowledge of privacy laws and data protection, expertise in intellectual property strategy, or experience in navigating the complex regulatory landscape of emerging tech markets.

For Sheer, who sits on the board of contract management software platform LinkSquares, part of her value prop is being a customer of the company. “I get to be the customer voice on the board — and advocate for new products and continued innovation because I actively use and greatly rely on the solution,” she said.

2. Determine Your Dream Board Seat

You'll also need to figure out the type of board you want to serve on, which will dictate how (and to whom) you communicate your value proposition.

Sheer recommends serving on nonprofit boards as an entry point. “Nonprofit boards are always looking for people to help, and this can be a really nice feeder into corporate board week,” she said. “Pick something you’re passionate about, and then see what nonprofits might be looking for new board members.”

For corporate boards, start by identifying specific (and realistic) companies whose boards you'd be interested in serving on. Develop a comprehensive understanding of these companies, including core business models and financials. Research industry trends and stay abreast of regulatory changes affecting the sector.

It's also critical to understand each company's culture and leadership dynamics. “If the company's CEO looks at the legal department as a necessary evil, they're not going to be anxious to have a lawyer on their board,” said Persky. On the other hand, a CEO who is used to partnering with their GC or has personal friendships with legal professionals might be more amenable.

3. Network, Network, Network

Once you've determined your value proposition, you need to publicize it. “Only 25% of open board seats are filled by headhunters. That means 75% are filled through networking,” said Persky.

But networking to get on a board's radar is different from networking for another GC gig, Persky pointed out. “Network with other people who are sitting on boards, as well as with outside counsel, auditors, etc.,” she said. “You can also start at home: Talk to your CEO to see if they know anyone looking.”

A few additional ways you can begin to expand your network include:

  • Attending industry events

  • Taking board governance courses through trusted organizations like the Corporate Governance Institute

  • Serving on a nonprofit's board

  • Advising early-stage startups

  • Joining The L Suite, a thriving community of fellow legal professionals you can lean on and learn from — and who might know of board opportunities that fit your skill set

Sheer also recommends looking at the various legal technology companies coming on the market. “There are so many companies trying to make legal processes more efficient by leveraging AI, and GCs should absolutely be advisory board members or directors on those companies,” she said. “Start talking to those CEOs and heads of sales, and become an advocate for those products. At some point, it’ll be the right time to ask and say, ‘I’d really love a formal advisor role.’”

4. Build a Board Resume

Board-specific resumes are distinct from standard CVs. “A board resume talks about accomplishments, not responsibilities,” said Persky. Whereas the typical GC resume might have verbiage like, “Headed a department of 27 lawyers, paraprofessionals, and compliance people,” a board resume might include lines like:

  • “Led negotiations for the acquisition of a transformational company, which added $200 million of revenue to the top line.”

  • “Led the integration process after acquisition, helping the company reach its financial model.”

  • “Navigated government investigation resulting in dismissal of all charges.”

When phrasing your accomplishments, “Go back to your value proposition,” suggested Persky. “If it's about M&A and growth through acquisition, talk about that. If it's around helping the company balance risk with reward, talk about settlements and raking in money through enforcing licenses.” In addition to updating your resume, be sure to reflect this language on LinkedIn, too.

With some strategic thinking, a few resume tweaks, and a dash of resourceful networking, you can turn your boardroom aspirations into achievements — and conquer the transition from GC to director with confidence.

For GCs looking for board opportunities and more, The L Suite members are a valuable resource — apply to join today.


About The L Suite

Called “the gold standard for legal peer groups” and “one of the best professional growth investments an in-house attorney can make,” The L Suite is an invitation-only community for in-house legal executives. Over 2,000 members have access to 300+ world-class events per year, a robust online platform where leaders ask and answer pressing questions and share exclusive resources, and industry- and location-based salary survey data.

For more information, visit lsuite.co.