What Does a General Counsel Do?

What Does a General Counsel Do?

Every company or government department requires legal counsel. You can’t rely on the frequently asked questions (FAQs) of websites for legal advice. That’s where the average general counsel, chief counsel, or chief legal officer (CLO) comes in. It's their job to ensure corporate compliance standards are met in the organization.

The duties and responsibilities of a general counsel may differ depending on where they work. For example, corporate counsel may work differently than the office of general counsel in any United States gov department. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look into the roles, duties, and abilities of a general counsel, which might help you write a better general counsel resume

What Does a General Counsel Do – Typical Roles in Organizations 

A general counsel is the head of the legal department or the chief lawyer at any company or governmental department. 

The role is typically divided into several tiers if the company or department is massive. For example, you may see deputy general counsel, inspector generals, vice president legal, and more.

If you're interested in learning more about the role via video, then watch below.

Typically, the general counsel tends to report directly to the CEO of the organization or head of the department. They oversee and identify all legal issues in various departments, how they’re related, and how to resolve them. 

The other departments include marketing, sales, finance, engineering, design, distribution, human resources, credit, and corporate governance departments, among others. The legal department works alongside these other departments under the authority of the general counsel. 

The general counsel also has to educate everyone on relevant laws and rules, such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the No-FEAR Act, labor law, OGC Compliance, employment law, environmental law, and international law. 

The general counsel has to apprise the CEO or any relevant department heads of any regulatory issues or changes in legal matters. Most importantly, they have to practice absolute discretion. 

Small business owners typically hire a law firm, outside counsel, or consultants for legal matters. However, most organizations tend to hire in-house legal counsel for the majority of legal work while outsourcing redundant legal services. 

Some organizations also let the general counsel manage administrative tasks beyond advocacy. At the executive level, the general counsel tends to oversee various departments. 

Other roles a general counsel can have may be in compliance reporting, crisis management, and public policy advocacy. In some cases, general counsel may do tax work, manage intellectual property, mergers & acquisitions, and accessibility & labor laws. 

What Does a General Counsel Do – Duties and Tasks 

Every general counsel will have varying duties, tasks, and responsibilities, depending on the organization and department they’re working in. Furthermore, the duties also differ depending on their job description. For example, the organization may list them as an executive, head of department, or just a manager. 

In any case, the following duties, tasks, and responsibilities are what the typical general counsel has to manage: 

  • Act as the chief lawyer and the head of the legal department. 
  • Provide relevant, accurate, and on-point legal guidance to company executives and other department heads. 
  • Attend all executive meetings related to mergers & acquisitions, changes in policy, or any change in the direction of the organization or department. 
  • Manage all compliance-related matters, risk management, and legal services groups. 
  • Engage with legal practice groups. 
  • Monitor and ensure that the company and departments are in compliance with business, corporate, and labor laws. 
  • Create various contracts and develop contractor agreements. 
  • Handle the legal requests that come from other departments – delegate tasks to assistant general counsels where required. 
  • Develop, overlook, and manage all leasing agreements to ensure any issues are resolved beforehand. 
  • Provide continuous status reports on all cases relevant to the organization or department. 
  • Do proper research into proposed laws and regulations that may be imposed. Analyze the potential laws, rules, and regulations and offer legal advice to counteract any issues that may arise. 
  • Work in tandem with the CEO, offering legal advice and recommendations on crucial decisions. 
  • Oversee training programs for new legal recruits, legal department employees, or outside counsel. 
  • Liaison with other departments, outside counsel, law firms, or online legal services if necessary. 

The duties, tasks, and responsibilities listed above can be expected from the average general counsel. However, some organizations may include duties outside the realm of legal work. 

What Does a General Counsel Do – Skills and Abilities 

While a general counsel may have varying duties and responsibilities, the skills and abilities required tend to be the same. However, general counsel in governmental departments may require additional skills and abilities. 

On average, the general counsel is expected to have the following qualifications, skills, and abilities. 

  • A bachelor’s degree in law or any related legal field. However, bachelor’s degrees in political science, English, economics, philosophy, history, psychology, and arts & humanities can also work if you gather legal education from elsewhere. 
  • If you have any other degree, you should complete a pre-law curriculum. 
  • A completed degree from a reputable law school (after passing the Law School Admission Test). 
  • At least 5-10 years of experience practicing corporate law. 
  • Pass the state bar. That includes the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), or other state-specific board certifications. 
  • Specialty certifications in tax law, business litigation, workers’ compensation, and international law also help. 
  • Excellent research skills are required to find relevant laws and regulations that may apply to the organization or government agency. It’s imperative to offer appropriate advice at this level. 
  • Expert analytical skills are needed to properly combine and analyze information to find adequate solutions. Ideally, a general counsel should be able to process and analyze large amounts of information from multiple sources simultaneously. 
  • Impeccable interpersonal skills are needed, including written & verbal communication, teamwork, dependability, and leadership skills. You should be able to communicate with other executives and show confidence in justifying legal decisions. 
  • Communication skills are needed to effectively negotiate matters, such as mergers and acquisitions. 
  • Critical problem-solving skills are required to evaluate legal issues and problems and offer appropriate legal guidance. 

The skills, qualifications, and abilities listed above usually are what you can expect from a general counsel, but they may change according to organizations. 

How to Become a General Counsel 

According to Glassdoor, the average general counsel salaries in the United States can be rounded up to $153,430. The typical range for the average salary is between $100,000 and $255,000, with the higher end being offered in cities, such as New York and Washington, DC. 

The general counsel salary tends to vary depending on the organization or department you’re working in. The salary mostly depends on what level of responsibility the general counsel has. For example, they will earn more if their title is Chief Legal Officer. Another factor for the salary is what industry you’re working in; for example, general counsel in the telecommunications industry may earn less than someone in the finance industry. 

Since most general counsels are considered executives, becoming a general counsel requires years of experience and practice. Smaller organizations tend to delegate more tasks to the general counsel, while larger organizations break the role down. 

For example, aspiring general counsel in enterprises may have to go through the positions of in-house counsel, associate counsel, litigation counsel, corporate attorney, or deputy general counsel, among others. 

Therefore, it’s crucial to brush up on most legal matters before opting for a general counsel position. It’s best to keep a good relationship with the State Bar Association as organizations and government agencies check up on you through the SBA. 

For the most part, becoming a general counsel is about practicing good law and having years of experience with a good background. The more experience you have, the better. 

Becoming a Great General Counsel 

Becoming a great general counsel is all about racking up as much experience as you can. The general counsel plays a crucial role in the organization or government agency, managing and overlooking critical legal matters. 

The more experience you have in various legal settings, the better. Furthermore, you should develop a habit of revising relevant laws and regulations while keeping an eye out for any new laws and regulations. 

It’s always advisable to take the opinions of other legal counsel to formulate your legal decisions. It will also help develop good relations with other legal professionals. 

Most importantly, a great general counsel will always work according to the organization or government agency’s standards first.

Published in Career Path, Job Descriptions

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