Making an Executive Decision

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice November/December 2019
Joost Maes on finding the right lawyer leader

Joost Maes, founder and head of Egon Zehnder’s legal, regulatory, and compliance practice, sat down with David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, for a conversation on identifying the right lawyer leaders for companies’ needs.

David Wilkins: You have such an interesting career and are in such an interesting field. Could you tell our readers a bit about your background and experience and what led you to executive search and Egon Zehnder?

Joost Maes: I am a Belgian and was a Belgian qualified lawyer. I got my legal degree at the University of Leuven and then started working with what was, at that time, the largest law firm in Belgium—De Bandt van Hecke & Lagae. In 2001 it was taken over by Linklaters. I was particularly active in corporate and M&A work—and was quite happy in what I was doing. Then came a call from Egon Zehnder.

Our role is to go through clients’ wish lists and push them to identify what is critically important.

Joost Maes, founder and head of Egon Zehnder’s legal, regulatory, and compliance practice

Egon Zehnder’s Brussels office was looking for somebody with a legal background who would be complementary with their team of engineers and economists. This intrigued me and, to make a long story short, I decided to join the firm. Why did I join this firm? In the first place, because of the people. They all had impressive backgrounds, seemed to be aligned in terms of values, and had energy and the passion. To be clear, when I joined, it was not to do legal recruitment specifically. But I had a network in the legal community, so quite quickly I began spending around a third of my time on recruitment for law firms and senior counsel positions. And that was pretty consistent.

In 2006, however, our CEO at the time asked me to start a legal practice group—a new functional practice group. The firm’s first practice group was the CFO practice group. A couple of years later we created the HR practice group, and then the CIO practice group. That led us to think, “It would be great if we could also have a group of people in the firm specializing in executive search for the legal community, whether for law firms or in-house.”

Wilkins: Can you describe the process that you and Egon Zehnder engage in when conducting a search? For example, what do you get from the clients? What do you ask the clients? How do you search for the talent?

Maes: Mostly clients contact us because they feel there is a need at a high level—for example, a new general counsel or divisional counsel or regional counsel. In most cases, the needs are relatively generic: It is to replace somebody who has left or retired and there is no obvious internal successor. At other times, however, there may be internal candidates for the role. For example, I am currently working on a general counsel search where there is one internal candidate who is being seriously considered, but that person is benchmarked against external candidates. Clients are increasingly saying, “We want the best candidate. We may have a few people internally that could fit the bill, but let’s see. Maybe there are still better candidates outside. Let’s just benchmark against external talent.”

Clients also typically come with a wish list of what the person needs in terms of experience and competency. Our role is to go through that wish list and push clients to identify what is critically important, what is less important, and then help them prioritize. For example, a key question always is: To what extent is experience in the industry important? I personally tend to think that a good general counsel is not good because he is technically very knowledgeable in a sector, regulation, or a specific legal aspect in an industry. Nevertheless, certain clients sometimes do feel more comfortable if you bring talent from the same sector.

You also sometimes have a challenge where the client you are working for is not necessarily a lawyer or is not coming from the legal function—it may be the CEO, it may be the board, it may be a CFO. And these roles do not necessarily look at legal talent in the same way a lawyer might. We are there to, on the one hand, educate clients on their real needs and desires, and then, based on our experience, to try to understand what is critical. We’ll talk about what we believe are key competencies, but the challenge is to then understand how they translate into concrete behavior with this specific client or organization. Every organization has its own culture and aspects of what makes it special, and we have to also match competencies with these cultural aspects.

What I sometimes see with general counsel is they are becoming less and less technical.

Where do we find candidates? Of course, there is a pool of potential candidates from earlier searches. Sometimes you don’t talk to these individuals for three, four years and you don’t know what has happened in their life and how they look at their career at that moment, so you will ask the question again and say, “Are you open to considering this?” We also do extensive industry research. For instance, I am working on a current search with one of our researchers where we will identify what could be relevant companies and examine who is holding either the top legal position or maybe the number two leader position in these companies. Typically for a search we will call around 15 to 20 people. Experience shows that one-third will show an interest, and from those one-third we will select the three to five we believe will be the best fit for the client.

Wilkins: I want to go back to something you alluded to before, which I know you’ve done a lot of thinking about. With respect to general counsel, what do you think are the kind of core competencies or core qualities that a company should be looking for?

Maes: We have a list of seven competencies we typically look for. First—and in my view an undervalued one—is legal skills. What I sometimes see with general counsel is they are becoming less and less technical. There are good reasons for that, but you need to be careful that you don’t get a general counsel who basically makes all calls and decisions based on gut feel, intuition, and years of experience instead of thorough legal insight. So, I think good legal skills are key. The second competence is business acumen. There are two dimensions to this. On the one hand, business acumen is understanding your internal customer—understanding the needs of the businesspeople. On the other hand, it’s also understanding the business itself. The third competence is judgment and wisdom. It’s being able to balance and integrate legal considerations and all other considerations in coming to a decision, often teaming up with other people from different backgrounds. The fourth competence is influencing and communication skills. A general counsel needs to be very good at explaining to nonlegal people things that can sometimes be very technical. To do this, you need to be able to communicate what can be technical information to nonlegal professionals so that they understand your angle of looking at things. And you need to do so in a way that can have the impact needed on these people. The fifth competence is related to leading your department. This starts with creating a purpose and a vision for your department. Particularly the younger generation will want to better understand, “Why am I doing this? Why am I working for this organization?” And I think a general counsel should make a purpose explicit for the department. A second subdimension here is creating the right energy in your department so that people are motivated and there is a sense of community. A third subdimension is making sure that there are good processes in place in terms of who does what, as well as legal department governance. And another subdimension of this is developing people in your department. How do you make them also become leaders in themselves? So all together that’s one key area of competence. The sixth key is competence, and one that is very important in international companies is multicultural savviness—knowing how to deal with different cultures both in terms of how they approach the law but also on an interpersonal level. And the last one, the seventh competence, is what I would call agility. In today’s world, things evolve at such a speed that a general counsel needs to be agile, both in terms of skills as well as on a personal level, remaining flexible, remaining open-minded, remaining willing to change course of action, remaining innovative, and being very curious about and in constant touch with what’s going on in the outside world.

Leading your department starts with creating a purpose and a vision.

Wilkins: Do you see people looking for different things today than they did before?

Maes:  If you look at the general counsel role 10 or 20 years ago, one would typically emphasize technical legal skills, business acumen, wisdom, and influencing. The dimension of team leadership and being a good organizer of the function, as well as agility, were typically less important. Those things have gained more importance recently because leaders are spending more time running their teams and keeping their people engaged and happy. The same with agility. As cost pressures increase, you must have the agility to secure the increasingly complex legal function with a lower budget—for instance, by using alternative legal service providers. There is also more attention paid to how to provide internal training to nonlawyers on basic legal skills. If you talk to executives who are not lawyers—if you talk to the CEO or the board—they may overlook the importance of that aspect, and it’s almost we who have to say, “Well, a good general counsel also needs to be good at having that creativity or agility in getting everything organized in a cost-effective way.” So, I think this has become important, but it’s not necessarily always high on the client’s list.

Joost Maes founded and leads Egon Zehnder’s legal, regulatory, and compliance practice.

David B. Wilkins is the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession.


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