Axiom's 2023 Deputy General Counsel Survey Report
Navigating bigger burdens with smaller budgets while climbing higher ladders
This paper covers:
- The Role of the DGC
- Economic Pressures
- Resourcing Issues
- External Networks
- Career Progression
The role of the Deputy General Counsel (DGC) remains a universally important one. At many enterprises, DGCs operate with considerable latitude in consulting, advising, and representing the company on a variety of highly complex legal, transactional, regulatory, and corporate governance matters. In addition to providing strategic advice to management and the board, the DGC will also help set the course for the legal function in general, while leading a team of legal professionals and overseeing a vast network of outside providers. In some companies, DGCs also liaise with the CFO and assume budgetary autonomy. And, in almost all environments, the DGC will be closer to the resourcing nuances of the legal department and its day-to-day operational challenges than the GC.
For all these reasons, the DGC role merits more study, and because its current occupants represent the next generation of legal leadership, the path to GC is also worthy of focus.
This report intends to fill the vacuum on DGC studies and benchmarking. In so doing, it addresses the DGC perspective on legal department resourcing, budgetary constraints, anticipated cuts, and how best to leverage internal and external support networks. The survey was conducted by Wakefield Research among 200 DGCs at companies with $5B+ in annual revenue across a wide range of industries.
Given the importance of the role, it also examines the career satisfaction of those currently in-seat and provides more visibility into the skills and expertise required to ascend to the GC role. Finally, it reveals the challenges and obstacles that prevent DGCs from climbing the last rung of the in-house legal ladder.
Struggling to Do More with Less
While high on the org chart, DGCs believe they are, nevertheless, quite familiar with the day-to-day challenges of the legal department. In fact, most (82%) report feeling more in-touch with departmental resourcing needs than their GC.
What are these front-line DGCs seeing and experiencing? A parallel crisis of budget cuts and increasingly complex workloads. Nearly all DGCs (98%) say their legal department budget has been cut as a result of economic conditions and ongoing volatility—including more than half (56%) who say the budget has been cut a great deal. But even as budgets shrink, workloads rise; virtually all DGCs (99%) report their department is seeing an increase in both the volume and complexity of legal matters.
These compounding issues create a perfect storm for DGCs struggling to maintain a staff capable of doing more with less.
How are DGCs addressing universal under-resourcing issues?
The Focus Areas of the Future
As DGCs struggle to find the right support, they most commonly report a deficit of in-house experience in new or emerging areas (36%), data privacy and cyber security (35%), commercial and contract law (35%), banking and finance (34%), labor and employment (32%), and intellectual property (32%). And these shortfalls aren’t going away any time soon. DGCs anticipate some of their greatest deficits over the next one to two years will be in more some novel areas.
Where do DGCs most anticipate having future needs?
Building Your External Network
For DGCs, it’s not just about hiring their way out of trouble. Almost all DGCs (97%) say hiring additional full-time lawyers is not an ideal solution for addressing their department’s resourcing challenges. First, 94% of DGCs anticipate a mandated hiring freeze this year, making hiring a nonstarter. But even if it were a budgetary option, every DGC surveyed reported difficulty finding and hiring the right attorneys to meet their needs, with more than a third (37%) reporting it very or extremely difficult.
For overextended DGCs that means some form of “external” support becomes more critical. The question is what kind of external support?
The survey findings say it’s not law firms, at least not anymore. Law firms may have once been the go-to resource for legal departments needing extra help but fewer than half of DGCs (47%) say they are currently an effective solution for the problems they’re currently facing. Why?
DGC Turnover and Attrition
The DGC position is a hard role, and the current economic climate certainly isn’t helping. All survey respondents (100%) report feeling stressed or burned out in their current role—including 51% who feel very or extremely stressed or burned out.
That statistic is leading to turnover. Nearly a quarter (22%) of DGCs are actively searching for a new position—and even among those not actively searching, nearly two-thirds (65%) say they’re likely to look within the next year.
Where, or rather what, are they looking for in terms of a new position?
Climbing the Last Rung of In-House Legal Ladder
Even for those content as a DGC for now, career advancement is a priority. Among the reasons many DGCs are dissatisfied with their current role is what they perceive to be its negative impact on their career progression. Nearly nine in ten (86%) say there are undesirable attributes about their current position. More than two-thirds of DGCs (67%) say limited professional development, advancement opportunities, or lack of a clear career path are the main cause of their dissatisfaction.
As a result, nearly three-quarters of DGCs (73%) feel they’ll need to change employers to advance their careers. There are two major reasons why DGCs would need to leave their employer in order to advance. Either the desired GC seat is already occupied, or they do not believe they are gaining the necessary skills to have a GC-worthy resume. The latter is a clear concern to respondents.
DGCs’ reasons for moving on reflect a simple disconnect between their current role and what it takes to move up. Overall, 96% cite issues with their current position that could negatively impact their career progression. What are the skillsets they need to advance? And how are DGCs obtaining those skills?
What Some DGCs Want: A Modern Career Path
When DGCs find their job lacking, they aren’t afraid to sound off. In addition to the career pathing problems cited, many DGCs point to quality-of-life attributes they feel are lacking in the current position: 40% cite limited or no remote work opportunities, more than a quarter cite poor company culture (27%), and 26% cite poor work/life balance (26%) as major reasons behind their diminished satisfaction.
Perhaps that’s why so many DGCs (51%) would look to a flexible talent provider or virtual law firm as a next potential home. Why are DGCs considering more modern career paths?
DGC Best Practices
Being a DGC is hard. The work is relentless and complex. The work-life balance is unideal. The internal resourcing to achieve best-in-class legal outcomes is insufficient. Hiring to gain additional support is hard, and now almost impossible given hiring freezes. Budgets are not only impacting the ability to hire but spend cuts are also upending the use of law firms (given their hefty price tags, which are only getting heftier).
How can DGCs best navigate the downturn?
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