General counsel: role and responsibilities

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So, you’ve joined a company as their general counsel. What next?

What is the role of general counsel in the company? What are the responsibilities of general counsel? And, what is the average general counsel salary? Find out this and more below with our general counsel related FAQs.

What is a general counsel?

A general counsel (GC) provides in-house legal advice for a company, diminishes legal risk and ensures that there is a high standard of legal compliance across the business. In addition, the general counsel is likely to be responsible for influencing business strategy, as it relates to legal and risk, and building a wider team of lawyers. The GC usually sits at the executive level within a business and has a managerial role. 

What does a general counsel do?

Put simply, the role of general counsel is to provide legal advice to the business. This could be by identifying and resolving legal issues or developing strategies to help the business both grow effectively and mitigate risk. In addition to providing legal advice, the GC may also be tasked with a number of additional key roles (especially in smaller businesses), this could include:

  • running a legal team;
  • 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; and
  • contributing to commercial strategies within a business. 

GCs joining an established in-house legal team will also be responsible for managing said team. This may include mapping out the team structure or making a case for headcount as the business grows and changes.

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How do you become a general counsel?

The role of general counsel is high level and high experience, so it takes a number of years to get there. Alongside a qualifying law degree and post-qualified experience (PQE), you will need a sufficient level of technical legal experience and a range of soft skills that will help with a leadership role. 

General Counsel jobs are highly competitive, so you’ll need the correct range of legal and business experience to gain the best chance at success. The role of general counsel is constantly evolving and responding to the changing scope of the legal profession, so this is worth bearing in mind. 

Technical legal expertise

Technical legal expertise is vital for any general counsel. In order to manage the breadth and variety of working as part of in-house counsel, the GC needs to be able to handle a complex caseload. You’ll need to be able to demonstrate in-house experience or have a strong background in commercial law, as this will help demonstrate substantial understanding of commercial and corporate law. 

The day-to-day role of general counsel can range from complex, lengthy projects like a funding round or an acquisition, to everyday 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 needed for a general counsel role 

Soft skills are applicable to all professions. But some will make you stand out when applying for a general counsel role more than others, such as:

  • Strong judgement. Being able to weigh up the 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 teams, among others. The ability to simplify complex legal topics to suit a given 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 assess potential risk is essential in helping the business grow more effectively.
  • Strong prioritisation. The role of general counsel involves having several competing priorities on your plate. Being able to say ‘no’ is an important skill and alongside ruthless prioritisation ensures 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.

General counsel salaries

The average base salary for a general counsel role in the US is $300,000. In the UK, this is between £150,000-275,000. These figures differ depending on the size of a company, location of a company (e.g. salaries are typically higher in cities such as London, Dallas, NYC), experience level and the number of people you’re managing. For more information on salary benchmarking check out our comprehensive resource on this topic. This includes the base salaries for GC roles in the UK, North America, France, Germany and Australia. 

Who does the general counsel report to?

This depends on the structure and size of the business. Typically, the general counsel reports to the CEO at startup, small or medium-sized businesses and to the CFO at enterprise businesses. 

The decisions made by a company’s in-house legal team are integral to business strategy and the success of the company. So, the general counsel usually usually work closely with the CEO and their executive team, as they have a say in strategic decisions for the business.

Who reports to the general counsel?

The general counsel’s direct reports are usually the rest of the legal team including: 

  • legal counsel;
  • 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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