A guide to the types of General Counsel

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Legal team job titles vary across organisations that have in-house legal functions. But what are they and what are the similarities and differences between them?

Unlike private practice law firms, in-house legal titles vary from one company to the next. If you’re recruiting or looking for a new position in-house, the lack of title standardisation could complicate your search. Increasing your awareness of these discrepancies will help you to avoid losing a career opportunity or candidate. 

Why do in-house titles matter?

For anybody starting their career in-house, it can be confusing to see the variety of positions available. In the past, there were only a few title variations for in-house legal jobs, where now there are dozens. At the senior end of the legal hierarchy it’s fairly simple, as the titles reflect the nature and seniority of the role. However, beyond this, GC titles can get confusing. 

Ensuring that people know the difference between these various General Counsel roles is important. Candidates research jobs using keywords they feel reflect their current position and skill set, just as employers may judge a candidate on their current role and experience level. 

What is a General Counsel? 

A General Counsel (GC) is the most senior person in a company’s legal team. They’re responsible for providing legal advice, diminishing risk and ensuring that there is a high standard of legal compliance across the business. The role often involves a high level of business acumen and sits at an executive level. You can read more about a GC’s role and responsibilities on this page and the average General Counsel salary here

Chief legal officer vs General Counsel     

A Chief Legal Officer is a broader role that incorporates the traditional responsibilities of a GC, while often having wider additional strategic and executive duties. Other companies may prefer to hire somebody into a CLO to reflect the executive nature of the role and an involvement in the management and strategic vision of the company. 

This could also reflect a wider range of responsibilities for CLO’s, extending further into business development, commercial awareness and corporate accountability. Although, it’s not uncommon to find General Counsel’s at startups and smaller companies doing just this. 

Could you have a GC and a CLO? 

In some cases, a CLO/GC partnership may be possible. The typical answer to this is, ‘no!’ Most companies would agree that having both a CLO and a GC within the same department could confuse external stakeholders. 

In some cases, when a company has a larger legal team (30+) it may make sense to split the duties of the GC and CLO. In this scenario the CLO would be responsible for managing relationships, strategy and working with the board while the GC would manage the legal team and day-to-day legal function of the company. 

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What is a Deputy General Counsel?

A Deputy General Counsel is the second in command, assisting the General Counsel to oversee the rest of the in-house legal team. The deputy GC provides legal advice to the business, assesses risk and acts as GC in their absence. 

The role assists and works closely with the GC and executive committee to support projects across a business. Alongside this, the Deputy General Counsel plays a vital role in the senior leadership of an in-house legal team. 

In larger companies, two deputy General Counsels can be appointed and may each have a specific area of responsibility. It is essential that anybody wanting to enter this role has both legal experience and strong commercial acumen. They may also oversee a range of administrative matters regarding the day-to-day management and running of the legal department as a whole. 

What is a Head of Legal? 

The Head of Legal is a mid-senior lawyer who oversees the day-to-day running of an organisation's legal team. Responsibilities include providing legal advice and guidance to the wider business. The head of legal is responsible for the legal department of the company, as well as working alongside the CEO and executive committee. 

Depending on the size of the company, this role can also be department specific, for example, ‘Global Head of Legal, eCommerce’ at TikTok. Here, the head of legal is responsible for one particular area of the business, so their focus may be narrower. The legal issues they focus on may include consumer protection, B2B and B2C engagement, advertising, influencer marketing and intellectual property (IP).

In contrast, at a small, startup or scaleup business, the role will be less specialised. The head of legal may also be the most senior or indeed sole lawyer in the company. This usually means that the company isn’t yet large enough to permit a GC-level hire and the salary that comes with it. The head of legal could act in areas from IP to employment, from data to tax structures, as well as managing a legal team. 

What is Associate General Counsel?

An Associate General Counsel works in the legal department of a company or organisation, just like a GC. Their role is to provide legal advice on contracts, employment law, litigation and more. They could also be responsible for outside counsel and work with the company to ensure their legal procedures are correct and as risk-free as possible. 

The Associate General Counsel is usually an experienced lawyer who supports and reports into the General Counsel at medium or enterprise businesses. In other companies, an Associate General Counsel can be a role specified to a particular subsidiary or department, for example ‘Associate General Counsel - public inquiry’. 

As such, the role can involve spending significant time conducting legal research, drafting legal documents and contracts as well as advising senior leaders on legal matters. An Associate role can lead to a General Counsel role in the right company and circumstances.  

In some cases, a company will appoint a Senior Associate General Counsel, a role that bridges the gap between General Counsel and Associate General Counsel. This could be a good stepping stone for those who have plenty of legal experience but need to gain the breadth of knowledge required to be a fully-fledged GC. 

What is an Assistant General Counsel? 

An Assistant General Counsel is most likely to be found in larger corporations or in government, especially in the US. The Assistant General Counsel usually reports directly into the GC and is a lawyer with around 3-5 years post-qualification experience in commercial law. As with any General Counsel role, an Assistant GC will be required to have a range of experience working with internal and external stakeholders. 

There is also a strong leadership element to this role, as the assistant GC is responsible for coordinating with the in-house legal team to create best practice. These are sometimes called Counsels/Corporate Counsels and report to the Assistant who reports into… you guessed it, the General Counsel. 

The titles themselves are complex, so it may be easier to just remember that any title other than CLO or GC will sit below them and adding ‘senior’ denotes that the person is a level above the one referenced, e.g. Senior Assistant General Counsel. 

Associate General Counsel vs Assistant General Counsel     

The difference between Associate and Assistant General Counsel is usually just the title. The roles themselves, as described above the roles and responsibilities are very similar. Both require over four years of post-qualified experience, regulatory and litigation work and the day-do-day running of in-house legal teams. 

The lesson here is to always read the full job description, role and responsibilities to assess whether it's the next logical step for you. 

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