Being a Startup General Counsel

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Choosing to become a Startup General Counsel means growth, for both the company and personally.

But what is it? Why do startups need a GC? And what’s the average salary?

What is a Startup General Counsel? 

A Startup General Counsel is usually the sole in-house lawyer at a business in the early stages of its development and aspiring to scale up fast. The General Counsel in startups provide more than just legal advice. They are a key member of the senior leadership team, a strategic partner within the business and have a unique impact on the company's journey. 

Often this means being responsible for elements of the exit event, be it through initial public offering or acquisition - both are legal processes. A Sftartup GC usually has several years practising in law, previous in-house experience and most importantly, a passion for the business they are joining.

Working as a General Counsel in a startup is a unique move and poses its own challenges. This is a role as focused on commercial challenges as it is legal advice. This means thinking outside the box, becoming creative with your problem solving and ingraining legal thinking into the structure of the business itself. 

Take it from Rohan Paramesh, who joined Habito as their first legal hire back in 2018. He says: “It’s definitely one of the big advantages of being a legal hire early in the life of the business - I could embed legal thinking early on in lots of different areas of the business.”

Why do startups need a General Counsel? 

Startups need a General Counsel as they begin to scale up. In the early stages, it’s more common for lawyers to be outsourced for certain tasks. This is largely down to cost – lawyers are expensive! However, as a business starts to grow or scale up as it's better known, the legal barriers it faces also grows with it. There is a greater risk for businesses in this phase and therefore having legal advice on tap is wise. 

A Startup Legal Counsel advises on everything from shareholder agreements and employment contracts to protection of intellectual property. For startups, growth equals complexity. 

Here at Juro the decision to hire our first in-house counsel was driven by business growth, according to CEO Richard Mabey. He notes that that expansion affected Juro in every area, from revenue and go-to-market to employee experience and risk. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to the need to hire a lawyer. ​

That said, the right lawyer for your business will help you to identify the specific legal challenges that the company may face. Startup legal support can include:

  • Incorporation, regulatory and industry concerns; 
  • Fundraising;
  • Leasing agreements;
  • Employment law;
  • Tax;
  • Commercial contracts;
  • Data privacy; 
  • IPOs; and 
  • More.

Remember, a startup is often a company founded by one or a few individuals who are passionate about the project, so having an external legal eye to challenge executives is key to progress.

When do startups usually hire a General Counsel?

It depends. The choice to move your legal decision-making in-house is usually determined by what we touched on above: growth. When the cost of outside counsel becomes too high and there’s a suitable workload for a GC to join, companies are likely to pull the trigger. 

A successful business needs the right people, especially in its legal team. So, a company will normally hire a GC when it considers its legal workload important and risky enough to fill a full 40+ hours week. 

We started thinking about this a year in advance - looking ahead at what we would need in a year’s time - Richard Mabey, CEO, Juro

As in-house lawyers work within the senior leadership team at the startup, their goal is to aid growth, strategize and cultivate success for the organisation. This may sound daunting to both employee and employer, but it’s an exciting opportunity to embed legal operations into the foundations of a company. 

In Rohan’s case, “A key element that was increasingly valuable over time was a foundational understanding of the mechanics of the business - this allows you to move much faster, which is fundamental to enabling growth.” 

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What are the typical responsibilities of a Startup General Counsel?

The GC in any company has a key function, to provide legal advice to the business. This ranges from developing strategies to help the business expand to ‘putting out fires’ by resolving key legal issues. But this doesn’t mean that these are their only responsibilities.

For a Startup GC, key responsibilities might include: 

  • Managing risk. This could include designing and implementing company policies or providing strategic advice to people working across different functions, levels and jurisdictions. It’s vital to understand various parties' risk appetite in order to best sync these with the overall business objectives.

  • Compliance-related projects. This ranges from audit requirements, health and safety policies to GDPR and employment law compliance. The General Counsel's role is to ensure that these processes are set up to ensure they meet the correct standard.

  • Training. Often, as the sole legal counsel it's down to the General Counsel to create resources to educate employees on important legal compliance. For example, many startups have to have SOC 2 compliance and the training for this often falls to the in-house counsel.

  • Contract management. Drafting, reviewing and negotiating contracts for external and internal use are an integral part of being in-house counsel. Now, this is often powered with the help of technology to reduce the amount of time a lawyer (or anybody else using contracts!) spends on low-value work. Platforms like Juro enable businesses to automate contract tasks and safely free up time for high-value work.

  • Legal operations. Means running an in-house legal function like a business. It covers areas such as legal data analytics, technology maintenance and financial management. Having a strong skill set in this area is key for a startup GC as it will make the legal aspect of the business more efficient and successful. 

  • Strategising. General Counsel is a key stakeholder in a company’s overall strategy. They work in partnership with the leadership team to ensure the legal feasibility of long-term goals. Being ‘in the room’ during important strategic decisions ensures the best decision is made regarding risk.

  • Ensuring compliance. This involves understanding the legislation that applies to the organisation and demonstrating that the business is compliant at all times. Examples of this include record keeping, contract compliance and procedures around compliance and adhering to complex rules, policies and procedures. 

Key skills for Startup General Counsel 

The hard skills needed to work as a General Counsel in a startup are hugely varied. Usually, at the earliest stage, the GC is the entire legal team and therefore they have to wear a number of different hats. In terms of hard skills, experience and confidence in the responsibilities listed above is a must. 

Some startups will prioritise hiring an in-house lawyer who has worked in their sector before, as they’ll have a strong knowledge base when it comes to their industry, customers, regulatory requirements, and so on.

However, soft skills are equally important to being a successful Startup General Counsel. For Richard, the first in-house lawyer at Juro had to be somebody who could demonstrate “empathy and clear communication”. For example, he says: “Is the candidate making an effort to be understood? Are they getting to the point? Are they considering other viewpoints, or thinking in black and white?”

The soft skills needed to be a Startup GC include: 

  • Strong judgement
  • Excellent communication skills. 
  • A strategic mindset
  • Strong prioritisation 
  • A holistic mindset 

For Rohan, key skills include “thinking calmly, precisely, and doing so in high-pressure circumstances - as well as a specific mindset and a desire to hone those traits.” Read more about the soft skills required to be a General Counsel on this page.

Startup General Counsel vs Enterprise General Counsel

Startups are known for taking risks and moving fast while enterprise businesses are renowned for being risk-averse and considered. This means that an enterprise GC is likely to work with a larger, established legal team. 

Enterprise General Counsel will have a larger range of resources to work and Enterprise GCs often report to the CFO but the GC reporting to the CEO, COO and the board is also possible. Equally, enterprise businesses are usually larger with numerous departments needing different legal specialisms.

It may also be the case that working in an enterprise business will lead to a more specialised role for example, ‘Assistant General Counsel, Litigation’, or may even come under a different name entirely such as Global Head of Legal, eCommerce. You can read more about the types of General Counsel here. These positions are usually found at global companies with thousands of employees. 

In contrast, a startup general counsel role is best suited to a generalist. The GC is likely to be the most senior or indeed sole lawyer in the company and tackle a variety of legal issues. For many lawyers, who are famously risk-averse, a startup may not be the right fit. Rohan highlights that in order to succeed as a Startup General Counsel, people need to know exactly what they are signing up for. 

Candidates need to understand the jump they’re making and want to embrace it - Rohan Paramesh, General Counsel, Pixel United

What is the average salary for a Startup General Counsel? 

The average salary for an In-House Counsel in a startup is around $135,000 per year in the US and around £110,000 per year in the UK, according to data from Glassdoor. However, it is important to note that this can vary depending on the size and stage of the startup, as well as the location and industry.

It's always best to do your research, compare and contrast your company to similar positions at different companies to gain a stronger understanding of what an in-house counsel in a startup could make.

To learn more about the overall benchmark for General Counsel salaries, check out this page

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