What does a CLO do?

by | Mar 27

10 min read

The most impactful legal expert at a large or publicly traded firm is called the chief legal officer, or CLO. He or she acts at all times with a view to minimising legal risk within their organisation, by keeping its board of directors and other senior executives fully versed on any legal and/or regulatory issues that may need addressing.

When being hired into this role, there are several key duties and/or responsibilities you will need to attend to. These are:

  • protecting the company by drawing up a corporate legal strategy;
  • overseeing internal auditing and corporate compliance matters, together with the chief compliance officer (CCO);
  • delivering legal services and resources company-wide, where these are needed;
  • advising all the other senior corporate officers, particularly the CEO, on legal matters as required;
  • assisting to draw up general management policies within the company, together with the rest of the executive management team;
  • managing the legal department of the firm, and any external counsel it deals with; and
  • keeping the media, various authorities and the surrounding community abreast of the extent to which your company activities are above board (which often involves making a statement to, or approving a press release for, the company’s marketing department).

When the Juggling is Real

Described by global corporate consulting firm Deloitte as “complex and demanding”, this is also a position where it is necessary to move seamlessly and with mastery between what they describe as “four faces”, masks or hats.

When donning your strategist hat, you will be required to bring clear legal strategy to the table, such that it guides your senior executive team on the legal matters they need to navigate – while striving to achieve incremental business growth. Their trust in your abilities is critical, especially when the regulatory environment changes and you need to steer them through these changes before traditional business matters can be tackled.

When wearing your catalyst mask, you will need to bring a legal telescope to the executive team’s decision-making process. This approach will help them to select a legally viable path forward; especially when they have come to a dispute. This stance is all about ensuring that you lead as you would hope others would follow; i.e. in a just and compliant manner. You can bring about much-needed change when wearing this mask, if you point to what pleases customers, adds value and works in tandem with company values.

Then there’s the guardian face, in which you will point to legal and regulatory matters throughout high-level discussions, to ensure that your firm is able to mitigate risk at all times. Never underestimate the importance of this “face”, which is often mentioned in CLO interviews as being foundational to your future work. When operating under this hat, you will need to identify anything which could cause brand or reputational risk; and advise on ways to avoid this by employing your high-level knowledge of governance and corporate integrity.

Last up, is your operator hat – the one you will wear during your day-to-day initiatives for the firm. As an operator, you will need to run the legal department, hire the right talent and keep service levels high, while also managing costs (by negotiating on fees with external counsel). Under this hat, you should ask yourself questions such as: Do I have a viable succession plan in place? Am I happy with the key performance indicators we are using to measure the work of our external counsel? Is the technology we have in place streamlining all our legal department work? If not, a meeting should be set up with the chief technology officer (CTO).

The research carried out by Deloitte reveals that most CEOs and their boards are keen for their newly hired CLOs to focus on the catalyst and strategist “faces” (60 to 70 percent of their time); while the balance of their time should be spent in the guardian and operator categories (30 to 40 percent). However, the reality often means they need to focus on the guardian and operator hats for some time, until things are running as desired. Even more senior CLOs often battle to synchronise their time allocation to meet the expectations of their CEO and board.

It goes without saying, then, that to thrive in this demanding executive role, you will need to be persuasive; an excellent leader of people, and manager of time and budgets; and know the business environment in which you are positioned like the back of your hand. You will also have to transition, with skill and grace, between the four hats or faces mentioned above as your influence within the company grows and solidifies.

Source: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/four-faces-of-the-chief-legal-officer.html

The Ideal Qualifications and Experience

According to MasterClass, a platform that provides 180 or more highly affordable classes delivered in bite-sized lessons by masters in each niche, the journey to CLO involves several distinct phases.

First of all, you will need to finish school with a university exemption – meaning that you’ve done well enough to apply to study an undergraduate degree at a university or college. In South Africa, for example, this degree is generally referred to as a Bachelor of Law (LLB), and takes 3 to 4 years to complete. During this time, you will study legal books and criminal codes, and memorise stipulations and exceptions. You’ll also be encouraged to analyse past cases and find ways to summarise information efficiently.

In some countries, such as the United States, you will only complete your legal studies as a post-graduate student in what is referred to as Law School. What’s important to remember is that, if you want to practice law in the international community, there are vast differences in how it is handled – so investigate these well ahead of time. (See “How the law differs across countries”, below). Corporate law is your best specialisation option for the role of CLO.

The second phase of your career journey involves completing an internship (or your articles) at a law firm. During this period, you should ideally observe legal counsel in action and learn about how legal matters affect the world in which we live.

To practice law in South Africa, you will need to sit a variety of professional exams – depending on your focus areas, i.e. attorney, conveyancer, notary, or advocate. Click here

for the details. In the US, these examinations are administered by the American Bar Association, and called “bar exams”. As the law differs between US states, it is important to sit for the exam in the state/s in which you plan to practice law, after which – when passing – you will be issued a state licence to allow you to do just this.

Next up, begin practicing law by joining a firm or starting your own. The experience you gain in the process, of managing staff members, trying cases – or doing the research that helps others win them – cannot be beaten. When you apply for that CLO position, your prior experience as a partner at a law firm, or first general counsel in the corporate world, will stand you in excellent stead among other candidates who lack the level of experience you have under your belt.

 CLO makes Headlines

Getting into the news as a CLO surely means you have arrived. This is more than the case for Finnish telecoms giant Nokia’s new permanent CLO, Esa Niinimäki, according to Globallegalpost.com.

A good lesson for all the ardent CLO’s out there, especially those who have completed legal studies (and gained experience) across multiple territories, is that Niinimäki had – prior to this promotion – served at Nokia for as many as 15 years. In the role of CLO, Niinimäki will report to Pekka Lundmark, who serves as the firm’s president and CEO.

“He is an experienced leader, who is an influential contributor to Nokia’s strategy,” reveals Landmark. While Niinimäki has told media: “[The company] has a strong ethics culture, with compliance a key value. This unites the efforts of business and the legal teams; and makes me honored to 1) lead the legal and compliance function; and 2) join the group leadership team during a time of strategic transformation.”

Source: https://www.globallegalpost.com/news/nokia-names-new-permanent-chief-legal-officer-476547

How Law Differs Across Countries

An interesting read about the way in which the law differs from one nation to another, and the reasons why, can be read here. There are, for example, legal systems built on civil law, those built on common law, and others built on the religion of a region.

The authors write: “The legal systems of all countries, whether English speaking and Western or based on ancient religious laws, are determined by a combination of history, culture, and politics. Since no culture is set in stone, no country’s legal system is incapable of adapting to changes in political or cultural circumstances, or trends that affect the existing legal system and require change. As technology allows the world to become increasingly global, an interesting question is emerging regarding the nature of dispute resolution in the future. Will disputes be settled in a Civil Law system or a Common Law system? Currently, the European Union and the United Nations are working towards an international legal system, that bridges the gap between nations for international dispute resolution.”

This international legal system, once fully developed and agreed upon, should make practicing law across nations and territories so much more seamless.

Fast Fact 1: The Quest to Stay Current – Books

One of the best ways to remain in touch with your in-house legal team and professional peers, some of whom have recently qualified and others of whom may have skills to your own, is to order online and consume all the best-seller legal books available. Here are a few astute choices:

  • Veasey, E.N. & Di Guglielmo, C.T. (2012). Indispensable Counsel: The Chief Legal Officer In The New Reality (US: Oxford University Press);
  • Tellmann, B.P. (2017). Building An Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies From A General Counsel (US: Globe Law and Business); Herrmann, M. (2006). The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law (US: American Bar Association);
  • Allen, D. (2016). Getting Things Done. The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (US: Simon & Schuster);
  • Levi, N. and Linder, D.O. (2010) The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life In The Law (US: Oxford University Press); and
  • Covey, S.R. (2020). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (US: Simon & Schuster).

Fast Fact 2: The Quest to Stay Current – Online Courses

A second, but in no way secondary, option to help you keep the best legal (and associated) knowledge at your fingertips – is to invest in a variety of short courses. Clearlaw, as just one example, is a South African company committed to improving the quality of legal services and providing practical insights into law and all matters legal. Their wide variety of short courses, which are priced from free of charge to R650 each, include:

  • A Conflict of Interest;
  • An Introduction To Compliance;
  • Ethics In Business;
  • Introduction To The Protection Of Personal Information Act (POPI);
  • Corporate Governance Part 1;
  • Sexual Harassment in the Workplace;
  • Unfair Dismissal;
  • Getting To Know Your Customers; and
  • Force Majeure.

To find out more and sign up, go to: https://clearlawsa.org.za/


  • https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/chief-legal-officer.asp
  • https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/four-faces-of-the-chief-legal-officer.html
  • https://www.roberthalf.com/positions-we-place/chief-legal-officer#:~:text=The%20Chief%20Legal%20Officer%20is,officer%20and%20other%20senior%20management
  • https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19550820-indispensable-counsel
  • https://docket.acc.com/general-counsels-manual-leading-legal-team
  • https://www.inboundlawmarketing.com/best-books-for-lawyers/
  • https://clearlawsa.org.za/online-legal-courses/
  • https://www.masterclass.com/articles/chief-legal-officer#2ot3alUtV6SyLHAPW7wNrS
  • https://www.bachelorsportal.com/countries/degrees/540000271/bachelor-of-laws-in-south-africa.html
  • https://www.lssa.org.za/legal-practitioners/professional-examinations/
  • https://www.globallegalpost.com/news/nokia-names-new-permanent-chief-legal-officer-476547
  • https://www.pibriefupdate.com/content/pibulj-sec/2065-how-do-legal-systems-differ-from-one-country-to-another

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