Sam Ross: What I learnt being a GC

23 October 2020 

Sam Ross, Associate Director & Head of Scaleups here at Stephenson Law, sat down with us recently to run through what he’s learnt working as General Counsel for a number of fast-growing scaleups.  


If you want to be in the room, be prepared to be accountable  

Lots of lawyers talk about wanting to be in the room or not being in the room. It can be frustrating if, when you’re working as a General Counsel, something big is unfolding in the business and you hear about it second-hand.  

I believe the only way to get invited is to be perceived as useful and a missing voice if you’re not there. However, when you do get into the room there is a catch: You get treated as an executive like everybody else on the senior team.  

And this is the crux of it. If you want to be involved in the key decisions of a company, be prepared to be accountable for those decisions.  


Be prepared to fulfil the role of being the calm head in the room  

People often panic if something ‘mission critical’ is perceived to have gone wrong in the business. When this happens, I think General Counsels have a unique role to play in coordinating the response, ensuring that the right people are being brought in to determine what’s gone wrong and what the steps are to fix the problem.  The person doing that needs to be calm, measured, and highly emotionally intelligent. 

During a crisis, a GC might also encourage the key players to consider the matter from a different angle or ask a question that hasn’t yet been asked before a decision is taken.   The GC may not have the most amount of business technical knowledge (e.g. technology or financial issues) but needs to understand things in enough detail to help, so it might be worth considering upskilling in any of these areas as well as on the law.  


Know where your boundaries are  

Your job as General Counsel is to advise the company.  Because you become known as someone who is helpful, you may get asked for advice by people where the nature of their request is that they want personal advice or advice that isn’t relevant to your role as an advisor to the company.  You need to be ready to say “Sorry but I can’t advise you on that, let me recommend someone else.

Don’t forget your team members’ needs when you’re dragged into the juicy stuff  
Often when you’re working as a General Counsel you’ll be working on contracts worth millions of pounds or a tricky legal or regulatory issue that’s being discussed at board level, while your team members might be working on important but less strategic matters that you trust them with. 

It’s really important to take some time to be there for your teamYou need to understand what they may or may not be worried about when it comes to their work and be able to provide them with the necessary support. This means stepping back from the big project that you’re consumed with and giving them some of your time. 

You’re only as good as your external lawyers   

It goes without saying but having external lawyers that you can rely on to provide accurate and timely advice is crucial. Whether it be someone with specific legal experience or somebody who has a deep understanding of your industry – remember to choose wisely 


Think hard about everyone’s perspectives, but be ready to challenge them  

A General Counsel might not be the most popular team member because part of their job is to challenge.   This is vital to the success of the company. 

For example, some founder CEOs haven’t had the experience of running a big company and particularly if it’s a consumer business, they may have had a sudden uptick in demand for their service. Very quickly they’ve received lots of investment and are servicing millions of customers around the world – a far cry from that idea in the garage just a couple of years ago They need constructive challenges to help them make those big decisions.  

Similarly, some investors might be very experienced with numbers and themes but may have less operational experience; if they suggest something that you know won’t work in practice, don’t be afraid to speak up! 


Your key KPI is the number of times influential people ask you for your view – treat this with the care it deserves 

When you’re working in an organisation, whether it’s big or small, most departments have KPIs. The sales team is how much they’re selling, the marketing team is how many new users they’re managing to attract, but for Legal it’s really tough. They’re often viewed as a cost centre find it difficult to get budget and struggle to show their value.  

In my experiencethe most useful way of gauging how well a legal team or lawyer is doing is seeing how many times influential or important stakeholders are asking for advice on stuff 

If nobody’s asking you what should be done or seeking your advice, then there’s a problem. 

And so, I think it’s about trying to get those key relationships in place with decision-makers in the business and ensuring that you’re there to advise them when asked.  


If you have a question for Sam or anybody else at SLHQ, please email  

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