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Many large organizations, educational institutions, and bodies of government have an in-house legal department. The general counsel, or head of this department, typically protects the interest of the entire organization and oversees legal associates within the department. Becoming a general counsel typically requires that an individual be a well-established attorney with a fair amount of time and experience in a business or corporate law environment. Strong leadership skills are likely also required to become a general counsel.
In most areas, a general counsel is required to posses a law degree. Many organizations also require a knowledge of business law and government regulations that apply to the specific industry. Law courses focusing on these areas can help to provide the educational background necessary to becoming a general counsel.
Typically, the level of experience required to become a general counsel is much more stringent than for some other types of attorneys. A general counsel position is not an entry level position; therefore, experience can be as important as education in some cases. Individuals seeking to become a general counsel should be experienced working in business or corporate law environments. Companies generally seek out for general counsel individuals with a working knowledge of business law specific to their industry. Some attorneys may also work up from lower-level positions in a corporate legal office to later become a general counsel for that firm.
A general counsel tends to be the watchdog of an organization, working to ensure that the company is protected and all legal obligations are carefully followed. As a result, strong leadership abilities tend to be an important quality for a general counsel. In government agencies, a general counsel typically deals with government policies and regulations; this may vary slightly from the duties of a general counsel in the private sector. For the most part, though, general counsel in both the private sector and in government do tend to have many of the same responsibilities.
A number of organizations offer support to general counsel in the form of associations and forums. These include the Silicon Valley Association of General Counsel and The General Counsel Forum in the United States, as well as the GC100 in the United Kingdom. Each of these associations and forums offers support to members, who may include not only attorneys but also management professionals. Each organization gives its members the opportunity to network with other industry professionals to discuss best practices, risk management, and current compliance issues.
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