Organizations of all sizes – especially those in the machinery of the government – should always be prepared to deal with legal hiccups, ensure compliance with the law, and minimize risk. To help it navigate through the tricky waters of law, an organization may have a department known as the “office of general counsel.”
But what is an office of general counsel? And exactly is it responsible for?
Whether you’re a law student or attorney considering this career path, or someone who’s just curious, keep reading. In this article, we’ll explore the answers to those questions.
Let’s get started.
What is the Office of General Counsel (OGC)?
The office of general counsel (OGC) is a name given to a department within an organization (usually government or military) that’s mainly responsible for providing legal advice, litigation, ensuring compliance, and overseeing large business transactions and/or procurement.
The OGC of an organization usually reports to the CEO (or any other chief position at the top – depending on the organization).
An OGC is run by a general counsel/chief counsel/chief legal officer, who supervises a team that may comprise of a deputy general counsel, associate general counsels, managers, interns, and more.
In the United States, almost every government agency has an office of general counsel that provides legal services to it. You can learn more about different departments on the official website of the United States government – USA.gov.
The Duties and Responsibilities of the Office of General Counsel
You can probably already tell that the exact set of responsibilities of the offices of general counsel vary from organization to organization.
There’s a lot that comes with being the legal advisors of an organization. That being said, it is possible to generalize everything and broadly cover the requirements of most employers.
Here’s what an office of general counsel typically does:
This is a no-brainer.
The primary responsibility of any office of general counsel is to make sure that the organization complies with all the applicable special and general law. This includes state/local, federal, and even international laws.
Depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of work/business of the organization, this could entail keeping in mind hundreds of statutes and regulations to ensure compliance.
For instance, the office of general counsel is responsible for ensuring compliance with different areas of employment law, such as equal employment opportunity act, the “No FEAR act,” and COVID-related laws, among many others.
In any case, the in-house counsel has to advise directors, other key decision-makers, and the human resources department on practices and strategies that should be executed in accordance with the law.
In addition to ensuring that the law is followed, the office of general counsel is also responsible for advising the organization regarding its legal rights.
The department plays a critical role in protecting the intellectual property and other sensitive information of its organization.
And if an external party takes unlawful advantage of the organization in any way, the department takes the appropriate measures to get compensation.
When the organization has full rights to take legal action against a party, the office of general counsel, after getting the approval of the senior management, will proceed with the litigation.
Risk management, as the name suggests, refers to the practice of anticipating risks and planning for circumstances with negative legal implications.
This is one of the primary responsibilities of any office of general counsel, regardless of the organization or the sector.
Risk management is all about being proactive in order to mitigate losses.
It entails keeping in mind the various laws, the way the organization operates, and its risk tolerance, and creating strategies to avoid or deal with different legal issues (such as tort).
The office of the general counsel works closely with the upper management to make all of the above happen.
The transactions that we make on a day-to-day basis as individuals may not always be significant.
However, when it comes to a large-scale business transaction, the in-house legal counsel (if any) may be asked to get involved to make sure everything goes smoothly.
A business transaction can be anything, from the procurement of different assets to even game-changing business mergers.
Some examples include the acquisition of real-estate, contracting services, and purchasing special equipment, among others.
In this context, the general counsel is (usually) responsible for setting up contracts, advising the other management, and negotiating with the other party. Again, the exact responsibilities may be different in your organization.
The legal counsel team can also be responsible for overseeing the internal rulemaking of an organization.
This could involve working closely with the board of directors to create company bylaws, making sure that the internal policies are in-line with state laws, and advising on better practices.
Duties of Actual Offices of General Counsel in Different Organizations
As implied earlier, the exact duties and responsibilities of the office of general counsel aren’t universal. Sure – they can be generalized to some extent, but at the end of the day, an employee from the internal legal team of NASA may have a completely different set of responsibilities from someone belonging to the US Department of Justice.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at the actual responsibilities of the office of general counsel in different organizations:
Small Business Administration (SBA)
The Small Business Administration (SBA) is a government agency that’s tasked with supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs in the United States.
It does this by connecting business owners with lenders and providing counseling.
The office of general counsel at SBA is mainly responsible for:
- Providing legal representation to SBA in proceedings
- Advising the administration regarding statutes, regulations, and other forms of law
- Overseeing the SBA’s internal ethics program
Additionally, the OGC at SBA oversees all legal matters to ensure compliance.
US Department of State’s Office of Inspector General (OIG)
The US Department of State is responsible for practicing the foreign policies of the United States and maintaining relationships with other nations.
As per the Inspector General Act of 1978, the department has an office of inspector general (OIG). The OIG is responsible for conducting audits, evaluations, and investigations in programs relating to the US Department of State.
The OIG, in turn, has an office of general counsel that’s responsible for:
- Advising the OIG employees on ethics-related issues
- Reviewing all the investigative, audit, and inspection reports created by the OIG
- Overseeing OIG activities to ensure everything is in accordance with the law
Furthermore, the OGC also handles personnel issues with legal implications.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
NASA needs no introduction.
The office of general counsel at NASA is responsible for:
- Interpreting general, local, and international law for the administration
- Overseeing contracts, grants, and other agreements
- Ensuring compliance throughout the department
Additionally, the OGC is tasked with resolving issues related to intellectual property, such as patents, copyright licensing, dealing with international entities, etc.
Offices of general counsel aren’t limited to government agencies.
Even private entities can have internal departments for legal counsel. However, they’re typically not as huge as the ones found in government organizations.
Here’s what Samford University’s OGC does:
- Overseeing business transactions of Samford University
- Making sure that the institution complies with all state and federal laws
- Providing legal representation to Samford University when needed
- Providing insurance and risk management
As of now, the OGC at Samford consists of two individuals – a general counsel and a university attorney.
How to Join an Office of the General Counsel
If providing corporate legal counsel is your career goal, you can split your roadmap into the following two broad phases:
Get the Right Education and Experience
This is a no-brainer. First and foremost, you need to make sure that you’re qualified to practice law.
If you’re still in high school, do some research to find out how much education you need to start practicing in your state. In most states, it takes 7 years (4 years of college, followed by an additional 3 years of law school).
Apply in a Sector/Business That Attracts You
Since law is applicable everywhere, the next step is to narrow down your focus and decide the sector and the type of employer you want to work for.
From the few examples above, you can see that you have quite a few options to choose from.
Consider the type of laws you’re attracted to, evaluate the difference in compensation packages, and apply for open positions.
If you’re a fresh graduate, keep an eye out for graduate programs.