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What Is a General Counsel?

A general counsel also conducts research and analysis of existing and proposed laws and regulations and represents an individual or a department as a whole.
Most general counsel positions required a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
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  • Written By: Mona D. Rigdon
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2014
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A general counsel usually is an attorney who works in a corporate or governmental legal department. The job of a general counsel lawyer is varied, depending on the employer. In a corporate setting, this chief legal officer often reports to the chief executive officer. Those working in general counsel government jobs usually report directly to the head of the agency for which they work. In both settings, the range of duties is similar.

Corporate counsel jobs have grown in large numbers and status. A large number of lawyers have moved from private practice into a general counsel job. An attorney usually serves in an advisory capacity to an executive team, board or agency. The chief legal officer often keeps track of new laws that affect the corporation or entity and advises upon what action might be necessary, drafts contracts and participates in contract negotiations and acts as a liaison with any outside legal counsel retained to handle specific legal affairs. Other duties often include managing leasing agreements, due diligence of acquisitions and mergers, legal compliance matters, status reports on cases, projects and legal requests and other duties as assigned.

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A general counsel also conducts research and analysis of existing and proposed laws and regulations and represents an individual or a department as a whole. Keeping a close eye on the day-to-day operations and overall policies and procedures of any entity bears a large burden of responsibility. For example, the chief lawyer in a corporation often must advise the board about what policies might need to be changed to ensure compliance with equal employment or anti-discrimination laws and might have to advise when the actions of board members, departments or individual employees might subject the corporation to civil or criminal liability.

General counsels in government have similar duties. Typical duties in a government setting include monitoring and advising about compliance with laws and regulations and assisting in the development of government policies, procedures, standards and contracts. In a government entity, the chief legal counsel might advise the governor, the president or an entire committee or board.

Pay for a corporate counsel or government general counsel position varies with assigned responsibilities and employer. Most general counsel attorneys make more than private firm associates, so openings in this field are much sought after. Because the job of chief legal officer entails this large amount of responsibility, most employers seeking to fill this position require a Juris Doctor, Bachelor of Laws or Master of Laws degree, depending on the country.

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Discuss this Article

strawCake
Post 5

It seems like a job as a general counsel isn't for someone who wants to be in court trying cases a lot. A big part of the general counsel job seems to be researching the day to day legalities of things for the business. And of course, things like drafting contracts don't involve going to court either.

I think a general counsel would have to be ready and able to litigate a case though. But I imagine they probably do everything they can to keep the business they work for out of court!

sunnySkys
Post 4

@SZapper - It's my understanding that usually a general counsel or chief legal officer is the head of a legal department. So while they are responsible for a lot of things, they don't have to do everything themselves.

Anyway, I think that any large business would be stupid not to have a legal department and a general counsel. As the article pointed out, business have a large need for legal advice.

I would take things one step further though, and say that small businesses should consider retaining counsel as well. I work for a small business, and we don't have any kind of legal department or lawyer on staff. I think we should, just in case. You never know what could happen!

SZapper
Post 3

I think it would probably be extremely stressful to work as a general counsel. Imagine being responsible for all the legal affairs of a business or corporation! I don't think I could handle it.

You would definitely have to stay very up to date in the legal field and one new court decisions that are business related. I know businesses can face harsh penalties if they don't follow business related laws and regulations. And laws and regulations can change kind of quickly!

I personally think that the job of a general counsel is almost too much for one person. I hope they at least get to have an assistant or something.

nony
Post 2

@Charred - I don’t know that the pay is actually a plus for the private practice. The article points out that general counsel salaries are higher than for private practice.

However, I agree that in private practice, the sky’s the limit on income potential. Keep in mind that it would probably be impossible to get a job as a general counsel without first having some experience in private industry.

I can’t imagine how you could qualify for a position as corporate general counsel simply on the basis of having a degree.

Charred
Post 1

If it were up to me, I’d prefer to be in a corporate general counsel position than to have my own private practice. There are pros and cons to each job.

Generally, when you’re in your own business – in this case private practice – there is potentially no limit to how much money that you can make. That’s the pro.

There is also no limit to how much money you can lose, which is a con. As a general counsel, either for a government agency or for a corporation, you have a fixed amount of income, but it’s stable and it’s usually very high from what I understand.

I’d prefer the stability over the potentially limitless income, but that’s just me.

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