More Hats for the Chief Legal Officer?

The Equifax data breach—now in front of Congress—reveals the growing oversight general counsels may need.

The titles “chief legal officer” and “general counsel” may conjure up images of somber-suited lawyers pouring over contracts and documents, ensuring each “t” is crossed. Though clearly a critical role in the C-suite, rarely would people attach the label “exciting” to it.

While not likely welcome, a form excitement is exactly what has landed on the desk of Equifax’s chief legal officer, John Kelley. Following last week’s disclosure of a massive consumer data breach at the credit firm, Kelley found himself in the hot seat this week, testifying before Congress about his surprising range of responsibilities, including oversight for security.

Increasingly, experts say, legal minds are landing in positions of greater strategic authority. It is part of a gradual trend of the role moving beyond just compliance and legal procedures, into business and legal advisory duties. “General counsel and chief legal officers apply their legal expertise and their business knowledge in a variety of different ways, depending on the company and the culture,” John Amer, senior client partner and head of Korn Ferry’s Legal Center of Expertise, says.

A company’s organizational chart, for example, may take the general counsel into the additional role of chief administrative officer. Or, the chief legal officer may even run a division. Legal and security, as in the case of Kelley at Equifax, both fall under risk management. “If there is a data breach, who’s the first person you’re going to call?” Amer remarks. “Whether security is in the general counsel’s immediate direct portfolio or not, it’s a good thing to bring him/her into the discussion.”

What makes a good general counsel or chief legal officer is not the ability to wear separate hats—rather, it’s about merging them under one integrated umbrella of legal and business strategy responsibilities. “You can’t separate the two—it’s not one versus the other,” Amer adds. “To be a good general counsel, you must have legal expertise and be business savvy.”