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How to Become a General Counsel

Working as a general counsel carries great responsibilities. Otherwise known as a Chief Counsel, In-House Counsel or Chief Legal Officer, a general counsel is the head lawyer of the legal department of an agency or company. General counsel are responsible for leading the entire legal team and must balance administrative and management concerns with generalist legal issues.

General counsel within a company report to that company’s Chief Executive Officer and Board of Directors. They are responsible for identifying and taking charge of legal issues within all departments of the company. They are also usually involved in shaping business policy and corporate governance of the company. In a government agency, general counsel provides legal advice and representation to officials of that agency, making sure that the agency’s statutory responsibilities are upheld at all times.

Because a general counsel carries broad responsibilities for many different facets of business, including but not limited to crisis management, compliance reporting, public policy, and legal issues, their salaries are among the highest of all attorneys.

Education Required to Become a General Counsel

General counsel must have a Juris Doctor degree and pass the bar examination. Many employers prefer that their general counsel have degrees from colleges and universities that are accredited by the American Bar Association.

Education for general counsel starts with pre-law undergraduate education, which may be in legal related fields or a variety of majors. Next, you must pass the Law School Admission Test in order to be admitted into an American Bar Association-accredited law school.  After earning a Juris Doctor degree, you must pass the bar examination in the state in which they plan to practice law in order to become licensed.

Continuing education is common for general counsel, allowing them to stay on top of current legal trends and statutes. Depending upon the state(s) in which you are licensed to practice law, you may be required to complete a certain amount of continuing education annually or biannually.
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Job Description & Skills Required for a General Counsel

When working as general counsel for a company, you will be responsible for optimizing organizational efficiency, drafting contracts for all departments of the company. IN addition, you will be responsible for negotiating and managing contracts with outside vendors and customers, as well as handling insurance and employee matters. Ensuring legal compliance regarding all programs including mergers and acquisitions, employee safety and consumer protection will also be one of your job duties.

The general counsel position is very well-rounded and requires you to have the ability to make prudent legal decisions, be a team player and have excellent interpersonal communication skills, both orally and in writing. Ideally, you should have legal experience in a wide variety of areas, pertaining to the company in which you wish to work. You must also maintain confidentiality as well as protect the sensitivities of your business. 

General Counsel Salary & Career Outlook

Per the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual median wage for lawyers as of May 2019 was $122,960, or $59.11 per hour. A 2017 survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa found that, specifically for general counsel, base salaries had increased by 1.3 percent from 2015 to 2016. This salary quoted the average base salary for general counsel as $310,000 as of 2016. Males earned total compensation (including salary and bonuses) that was 17.5 percent higher than that of female general counsel. Those based in the Northeastern part of the United States earned the highest level of compensation of all general counsel in the country, at $520,000. This was followed by general counsel in the Midwest, who averaged $445,000 per year; and those in the West, earning $403,000 annually.

Within specific industries, the survey found that the greatest increases in total compensation for general counsel were found in the wholesale trade industry, followed by finance/real estate/insurance, and public utilities/transportation.

The BLS job outlook for general counsel (lawyers) projects growth of four percent from 2019 through 2029, which is an average expected growth. It is expected that 32,300 new lawyer positions will be added to the existing 813,900 lawyers currently working across the country. Growth is specifically expected for general counsel positions, as it is becoming more cost-effective for companies to switch from having outside legal counsel to their own in-house general counsel.

A survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) discovered that half of those general counsel surveyed in August 2020 had no fear of losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting financial crisis. Over 75 percent noted that their base salary and benefits had not been reduced, and 61 percent did not expect their total compensation to be reduced in the future.  This information suggests that becoming general counsel of a company or agency is a stable position upon which you can rely.

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