General counsel role and job description

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19 April, 9am CST
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You’ve joined the business as their general counsel.

What can you expect from the role? And what are your responsibilities as a GC? Compare your job expectations here, with our GC-related FAQs.

What is a general counsel?

A general counsel (GC) is an in-house legal role that sits at the executive level within a business. Alongside ownership of day-to-day legal work, the general counsel will likely be responsible for influencing business strategy as it relates to legal and risk, and building a wider team of lawyers.

What is the role of a general counsel?

The general counsel identifies and resolves legal issues and develops strategies to help the business both grow effectively and mitigate risk.

GCs at small businesses may have to take on a wider range of responsibilities that fall outside traditional legal advisory work, such as:

  • Compliance-related projects
  • Regulatory work, particularly at a fintech or a healthtech business
  • Collaborating with finance on budgeting and reporting
  • Legal operations
  • Collaborating with product to work on new updates and feature launches
  • Partnering with HR or people & talent teams to address and resolve employee-related issues
  • Driving business strategy as part of the leadership team

GCs joining an established legal team will also be responsible for managing the team, mapping out the team structure, and making a case for headcount as the business grows and changes.

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How to become a general counsel

To become a general counsel you need a sufficient level of technical legal experience and a range of soft skills that will help with a leadership role.

Technical legal expertise

Technical legal expertise is a must-have for any general counsel. The GC needs to be able to handle a variety of matters, from complex, lengthy projects like a funding round or an acquisition, to the day-to-day admin work like routine contract negotiation or employment-related issues.

If you’re looking for more information on the types of employment-related queries an in-house lawyer may have to address and resolve, check out our employment primer.

Soft skills for leadership

The soft skills needed for a general counsel role include:

  • Strong judgement. Being able to weigh up pros and cons of a decision, avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ and execute quickly and efficiently is an incredibly valuable skill
  • Excellent communication skills. The in-house role involves collaborating with different teams in the business - GCs may have to work with product, sales, marketing, finance, and HR, amongst others. Being able to simplify complex legal topics to suit the audience is important
  • A strategic mindset. The GC’s role extends beyond legal work - as a leader, you’re expected to help influence business strategy. Your ability to plan ahead for upcoming projects, future obstacles, and potential risk is essential in helping the business grow more effectively
  • Strong prioritization skills. Being a GC involves having several competing priorities on your plate. Being able to say ‘no’ is an important skill, alongside ruthless prioritization so that you’re focusing on the most impactful work

The O-shaped Lawyer initiative delivers structured learning to help in-house lawyers develop soft skills they perhaps didn’t focus on during their professional training. Read more about O-shaped lawyers here.

How much does a general counsel earn?

The base salary for a general counsel role in the US is $300,000. In the UK, this is between £150,000-275,000. Check out our resource on salary benchmarking for more information.

Who does the general counsel report to?

It depends on the structure and size of the business, but generally, the general counsel reports to the CEO at small or medium sized businesses, and to the CFO at enterprise businesses. The general counsel will usually report to or work closely with the CEO, as they have a say in strategic decisions for the business.

Who reports to the general counsel?

The general counsel’s direct reports often include the rest of the legal team, from legal counsel to paralegals, legal operations managers, contracts managers, and heads of legal. Depending on the size and structure of the business, the general counsel may also be responsible for other teams like compliance, privacy, operations or finance.

For more information, check out our team structure map for in-house legal.

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