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9 Tips to Hire the Best Legal Counsel for your Tech Company

26 Jul 2021
Adrien van den Branden, LL.M.
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Hiring a legal counsel is hard.

Hiring the best legal counsel is frigging hard!

How do you even start? What title do you give to your job? Where do you hunt? How do you test the candidate? What questions do you ask?

Don't worry, we got you covered.

Follow these 9 tips to increase your chances of recruiting the rare gem. From the preparation of the job description to right after the interview. Let's start!

Preparation

1/ Pick the precise job title

The job title is the single most important item of any job description.

Candidates decide within a fraction of a second whether to pay attention to your job offering. And it's only based on the title. So give it some thought.

Ask yourself what are you looking for:

  • Are you hiring your very first legal counsel? Then you're likely looking for a person capable of creating a legal function from scratch, use technology to optimize your processes and later on hire a small team. You need a General Counsel.
  • Do you already have a legal team in place and looking for a senior profile to take charge? You need a Head of Legal.
  • Do you expect the legal counsel to report directly to the CEO and participate in the strategic decisions of the company? You need a VP Legal.
  • Are you looking for a legal counsel to prepare and review contracts and possibly automate the process away? You need a Contract Counsel.
  • Is your company building a product requiring a lot of regulatory or legal input? You need a Product Counsel.
  • Do you need your legal counsel to also be in charge of EU data protection matters? Add Data Protection Officer (DPO) to the job title.
  • Do you need your legal counsel to also source technology to optimize and automate your legal processes? Add LegalOps to the job title.

No need to add "(M / F)" to mention that you're looking for a male or a female to perform the job. This is unless you're hiring in a country where you must be be explicit according to anti-discrimination rules (like in France 🇫🇷). If so prefer general job titles like "Juriste d'entreprise" or inclusive ones likes "Assistant.e juridique".

Finally, it's always good practice to spice up your job title with the level of seniority. This will help candidates screen themselves out from applying to too junior or too senior positions.

  • Junior Legal Counsel: less than 3 years of experience
  • Medior Legal Counsel: between 3 and 5 years of experience
  • Senior Legal Counsel: above 5 years of experience

General Counsel or Head of Legal are inherently senior roles, so no need to be explicit here. Same goes for interns, which are junior positions by essence.

2/ Look for a T-shaped individual

As a company, you may have unrealistic expectations about what you can expect from a legal counsel. As a matter of fact you may not even have a clear idea of what you are looking for, especially if you're hiring your very first legal in-house.

For example, don't think your candidate will have the expertise to tackle single-handedly all your legal matters.

Instead of legal expertise, you should optimize for decision-making capability.

Why do you hire a legal counsel for? Because he or she will have the unique ability to decisively tell your C-levels what's important and what's not.

So look for a T-shaped legal professional. The vertical bar represents his or her expertise in one field of the law. And the horizontal bar represents his or her general knowledge of all remaining fields of the law.

Expect that vertical bar to shrink over time, and the horizontal bar to expand drastically and gradually cover all the business aspects of your company.

Practically, your job description should reflect one legal vertical expertise (like "intellectual property") and a long tail of generic themes (like "contracts, data protection and corporate").

And your job title should reflect that. Craft it like "Legal Counsel - Intellectual Property" instead of "Legal Counsel - Generalist (IP / Data Protection / Contracts / Corporate)".

3/ Look for impact

Screen candidates on the potential impact they will bring to the business.

Your job desc will inevitably require the candidate to boast a minimum and maximum level of experience (like between 3 and 5 years), just so you can filter out profiles who would be too junior or too senior for the job.

Remember that experience is just a proxy for impact. Focus on past achievements, not on the number of years in the trenches. As a company, you want your legal counsel to sustain your growth while staying compliant. Ask yourself how the candidate can contribute to that.

If you're hiring your very first legal counsel, it will be harder to know who exactly you are looking for. Companies at this stage are usually hunting for lawyers with 3-5 years of experience or a General Counsel with one or two years of experience. So the new hire can hit the ground running.

Past experience at a law firm proves the candidate has thrived in a harsh environment and learned to work the hard way. A legal counsel working at a non tech company and who has never worked at a law firm could be a sign he or she doesn't have what it takes to burn the midnight oil (which happens sometimes at a tech company).

4/ Be ready to break the bank

Company lawyers are amongst the highest paid individuals in a tech company.

It's understandable because:

  • They take work off the shoulders of C-levels (the CEO, the CFO, the VP finance)
  • They will internalize parts of the work delegated to expensive attorneys
  • They come from a corporate law firm which compensates them handsomely

Legal is an expensive problem to solve. So expect the salary of your legal counsel to be sizeable. Check with HR how to accommodate with your remuneration brackets table.

Naturally your future in-house counsel will accept a salary cut from what he or she used to earn at their law firm. This is a sacrifice they are willing to make in exchange of nice perks: working in a kind environment, implementing technology to automate legal work, taking a leadership position in the company, etc. Use those perks to sell the job to your candidate.

If you see the eyebrows of your candidate frown when upon disclosing the salary, don't forget to mention the full package: x days of paid annual leave, meal vouchers, training vouchers, stock options, team offsites, etc. All tangible perks that no law firm is offering.

All this considered, remember that "if you pay peanuts you get monkeys". And the saying has never rung so true in the context of hiring a high-profile legal counsel.

Hunt

5/ Post on specialized jobs boards

Jobs boards make it easy for you to attract top talents.

Yet you'll get low qualified profiles if you post your legal job on unspecialized websites. Quality always trumps quantity in HR.

Luckily specialized websites like Legal Jobs in Tech Companies address a targeted audience. These niche jobs boards hand-pick highly qualified legal jobs to promote their access to well-informed job seekers. You'll source from a narrower yet more qualified pool of talents.

Interview

6/ Conduct a technical challenge

Conducting a challenge to test the abilities of your candidate is highly recommended, especially when hiring for senior positions.

Design a challenge that mirrors the day-to-day job. Ideally, you want to test the candidate in his or her expertise (i.e. the vertical bar of the T). If you are VC fund, let the candidate prepare a financing agreement. If you are a B2B SaaS company, let the candidate review comments made by an enterprise customer to your licensing terms and your data processing addendum.

If you need help to get started on the challenge, consult our (free) tech challenges library.

7/ Interview like the best

Don't reinvent the wheel and follow well-established guidelines on how to conduct interviews (our favourite is called the "Who method for hiring A players").

A specific question you can ask is "What's your plan for your first 100 days with us?".

8/ Screen for red flags

Note those potential red flags during the interview:

  • The candidate cannot identify your most important stakes (e.g. internationalisation, growth, next fundraising, regulatory)
  • The candidate is too technical and expert-sounding
  • The candidate doesn't ask about your current processes or your current tech stack and doesn't show any interest in automating or optimizing your legal operations
  • The candidate is too insistant on hiring junior profiles to help him or her out

After the interview

9/ Don't forget the ref checks

Don't ever skip the step of asking for reference calls.

It may be touchy for a lawyer to provide you with their immediate boss's contact details. Yet please insist, presenting yourself like "we came across a profile working at your law firm and are considering hiring him or her. Mind answering 4-5 questions?". You can stay evasive about the fact that the candidate is in the last stages of the hiring process.

If possible, ask the lawyer to talk to one or two of his or her clients. There's no better feedback.


That's all for today. I hope you found this piece useful.

With Canyon, we want to help fast-forwarding legal teams hire the best talents out there. That's why we handpick highly qualified legal jobs on our website. The job posting is entirely free. It is our contribution to the LegalTech ecosystem. If you'd like to have your job offer posted here, please reach out to jobsboard@canyonlegal.com.

If you enjoyed this one, join the hundreds of professionals who already subscribed to our newsletter. At Canyon, we help companies automate their legal operations and make contracts better and faster.

Oh, and one last thing, if you like what you read, go ahead and follow us on LinkedIn.

Over and out — Adrien

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