Culture Job Descriptions

General Counsel Job Description: Roles and Responsibilities

Budget cuts and administrative hurdles aside, there are hundreds of local, general, and international laws that corporations and government departments need to be aware of. The general counsel role mainly exists to help organizations understand those laws and steer clear of legal issues. However, the general counsel job description entails a lot more than that.

If you’re an employer in search of someone capable to lead your company’s legal department, or an aspiring candidate whose goal is to become a GC, keep reading. 

In this guide, we’ll provide a detailed general counsel job description template, the average general counsel salary, and the roadmap of landing this role (or what to look for in a candidate, if that’s your goal).

Let’s jump right in.

Who is a General Counsel?

A general counsel – also known as a chief legal officer (CLO) and sometimes corporate counsel – is the chief lawyer of an organization. They are seasoned attorneys who are usually hired as full-time or contractual employees by organizations to provide expert legal counsel to the senior management, handle all legal matters of the organization, and also lead the legal department (office of general counsel). 

In a typical hierarchy, they report directly to the chief executive officer of the company. 

Due to the nature of their operations, banks, insurance companies, academic institutions, oil/power companies, and government departments usually need general counsel to guide their corporate governance.

In the United States, a few decades ago, general counsels only handled administrative work related to legal matters. However, over the years, the job title evolved, and today, they provide 360-degree legal services to their employers.

A general counsel doesn’t have to be an employee of the organization. They can also serve organizations as external attorneys, in which case, they’re referred to as “outside counsel.”

What’s the Purpose of Having a General Counsel?

We now have a rough idea of the general counsel job description.

But what exactly is the purpose of hiring an attorney?

Generally speaking, a general counsel can help with the following:

  • Compliance with the Law – depending on your nature of business, industry, and location, there could be hundreds of laws applicable to your organization. A general counsel can help you understand, adapt, and adhere to those laws. 
  • Risk Mitigation – even if you comply with all the laws, businesses are always at risk of getting slapped with lawsuits, some of which can threaten their very existence. A great general counsel will consider these risks, create strategies to mitigate them, and step up to provide legal representation when needed.
  • Business Performance – last but not least, considering the above, a general counsel can have a direct lasting impact on the long-term business performance.

All in all, having an attorney on your team can go a long way in protecting you from legal landmines.

General Counsel Job Description

With the basics out of the way, let’s dive into the specifics of a typical general counsel job description. 

The information that we’re about to share has been finalized after analyzing general counsel JDs on various online job boards. Your organization’s requirements may vary.

Job Brief [Template]

If you’re an employer, you can use the following general counsel job description template, adjust it (if necessary), and share it away on different platforms:

“We are looking for a competent attorney to join our organization as a General Counsel on full-time/part-time basis. The ideal candidate must have over 4 years of experience in a law firm, and have ample experience in corporate compliance

You should have a knack for leadership, are proactive, think long-term, and have sound business knowledge. As our company’s general counsel, you’ll be responsible for furnishing expert legal advice to the upper-management, drafting and reviewing contracts, providing legal representation, liaising with the outside counsel, and leading the in-house legal team.

From time to time, you will also be responsible for negotiating and overseeing large business deals, including mergers and acquisitions. Furthermore, you’ll also oversee corporate governance to ensure legal compliance.

If you’re up for the challenge, apply with your up-to-date resume and a cover letter explaining why you’re the perfect fit for this role.”

Typical Duties and Responsibilities

The actual duties and responsibilities of a general counsel will vary from industry to industry.

However, it is still possible to generalize the job description to some extent. Here’s what a GC usually does:

Provide Legal Advice to the Senior Management

As mentioned above, depending on what the organization does and where it’s from, there could be hundreds of statutes and regulations that could dictate how it operates.

There’s only so much that the board of directors can remember. A general counsel is therefore responsible for helping them adhere to the laws, reminding them of their legal rights, and conducting legal research on behalf of the organization.

They have to work closely with the heads of departments, including, but not limited to, human resources, engineering, design, procurement, marketing, sales, and finance.

In short, whenever the company needs legal advice, they turn towards the general counsel.

Provide Legal Representation to the Organization When Required

Another thing that a general counsel is usually responsible for is providing legal protection. 

Depending on the type of organization, they’ll protect the intellectual property, advise management on adhering to various safety, environmental, and copyright laws, and provide legal representation if and when an entity files a lawsuit against the company/department.

Ensure Compliance with Corporate Governance Law

Corporate governance refers to the systems, rules/policies, and structures by which a company operates and governs itself. All of this is mainly controlled and influenced by the company’s board of directors.

There are certain laws in place that ensure corporations operate in ways that aren’t detrimental to the environment, safety of their employees, and privacy of their customers. Furthermore, there are certain laws that prevent fraud, bribery, and tax evasion. 

Some laws vary from state to state. To ensure that the corporation complies with all of the applicable laws, the general counsel works with the board of directors to devise legal strategies and compliance programs. 

Manage Risk

Risk management is a crucial part of a general counsel’s job. 

Running a corporation, agency, or some other government department isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

At all times, you’re exposed to innumerable legal risks. To ensure that you navigate around these legal landmines, and create game plans for when you walk into one, the general counsel is needed.

Oversee Business Transactions and Contractor Agreements

There are certain business transactions and contractor agreements that warrant the involvement of the company’s attorney.

Examples include acquisition of real-estate, merger of companies, purchasing rights to a certain technology or intellectual property, etc.

The general counsel ensures that the transaction/deal is in compliance with the law, prepares legal documents, and negotiates better terms on behalf of their employer.

Lead the Office of General Counsel/In-House Department

Finally, if the organization has a formal office of general counsel/in-house legal team, the general counsel is considered the department head.

They’re responsible for interviewing and hiring candidates, setting expectations, allocating resources, and conducting performance reviews.

Furthermore, when needed, the GC also liaises with the outside counsel for their legal services.

Requirements for Becoming General Counsel [The Roadmap]

Creating a comprehensive general counsel job description is just one part of the challenge. The other part is ensuring that you hire the right person for the job.

Below, we’ve shared the credentials, experience, and skills found in every successful candidate.

Academic Requirement

This is a prerequisite. The candidate applying for the GC role must have 4 years of college education, along with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from an American Bar Association accredited law school (which is a 3-year degree).

Furthermore, the candidate must pass the state bar exam.

Legal Experience

This may vary from employer to employer, but candidates are usually required to have at least 4 years of experience at a law firm.

Skills Needed

Lastly, a great general counsel needs to have strong analytical and interpersonal skills. These include:

  • Leadership – a general counsel needs to have a charismatic persona, should have high emotional intelligence (EQ), and just be generally convincing.
  • Communication Skills – they have to work closely with various departments, communicate the law, and set expectations. Therefore, strong written and verbal communications skills are must.
  • Critical Thinking – a general counsel needs to be good at decision making. And to do that, they should be able to think with a clear head. 

Additionally, the general counsel must have great management skills, including time management, compliance planning, and delegation.

Final Thoughts

All things considered, a general counsel is a pretty serious position, which, if not filled by the right profile, could be devastating for the employer.

When creating the general counsel job description, make sure to communicate your expectations clearly, look for attorneys with great track records, and run extensive background checks before you hire anyone.

By Josh Fechter

Josh Fechter is a partner at Corporate Compliance HQ and has founded several companies in software and training.