What Is General Counsel? Definition and Examples

What Is General Counsel? Definition and Examples

With so much legal information becoming available in the public domain, maintaining corporate compliance has become somewhat easier. However, there's still the issue of correct legal decision-making at the right time, aka the legal counsel role. That brings up the question of what is general counsel, and whether the general counsel position is of any real help to modern executive teams.

Every new and established company knows that the legal department is just as important (if not more) as risk management and successful business decisions. 

The legal expertise they lend to the compliance management team helps prevent failure to comply and other serious legal risks.

If you're wondering what a general counsel resume should look like, keep reading. In this article, I'll describe the role of general counsel, and give some examples of the legal services they provide to senior management at companies. 

Let's get started.  

What is General Counsel? [An Overview]

Simply put, the general counsel is in-house lawyers that provide legal guidance to companies (in the United States) for better corporate governance. 

These professionals are usually at the head of the company's law department.

Also called Chief Legal Officers (CLOs), they act as business partners and regulators towards the company leadership. 

Generally speaking, it is a high-profile position, with some counsel working directly with business leaders and senior stakeholders (vice presidents, CEOs, CFOs, etc.). 

General Counsel Roles and Responsibilities

Depending on the size and scope of the company, as well as the individual's skill set, the general counsel could have a multitude of responsibilities. 

They could be the sole regulatory authority within the company, or they could have an assisting role in all legal matters. 

Whether the individual is in-house counsel or outside counsel, there are some responsibilities that all chief legal officers have to undertake.

These are:

  • Legal Advice: The general counsel is the primary source of advice pertaining to all decisions and processes involving regulations and legal decisions. Corporate counsel is often called upon to provide the best course of action against legal issues.
  • Legal Affairs Management: The company's internal lawyers ensure that all company operations are in accordance with local, state, and federal laws. They also make sure that management upholds ethical and nondiscriminatory practices. 
  • Conducting Legal Research: The management needs to make certain decisions that involve thorough research into in-effect regulations and laws. The general counsel performs this research and devises the best solutions within the legal sphere.
  • Drafting and Filing Forms: Being the primary legal authority, the general counsel is responsible for analyzing, drafting, and filings all licensing forms and various statutory filings.
  • Intellectual Property Management: The general counsel is responsible for maintaining a record of all the intellectual property belonging to the company, as well as ensuring its safe and legal usage by licensed parties only. 
  • Examining/Drafting Agreements: The head legal officers are responsible for examining any and all agreement documents between the company and other entities. They also draft the majority of these agreements, after covering all legal bases and loopholes.
  • Ensuring Compliance: Being the head of the legal team, the general counsel ensures that the company operates in accordance with all the relevant laws and regulations pertaining to human resources, employment law, and various public policies. 

Additionally, all general counsel officers liaise with external legal resources on all legal work, including acquisitions, mergers, financial transactions, and operational expansion. 

What is General Counsel: Job Examples

The legal profession has experienced an onset of diversity around the world. Lawyers can now function in various capacities and law firms have begun to offers a diverse range of services.

The same is true for anyone working as general counsel for a company or firm of any size. 

Here are some professional examples of general counsel jobs. 

  1. In-House Chief Legal Officer

In-house legal department heads are responsible for overseeing all legal proceedings and functioning in a primary strategic capacity within the company when it comes to legal matters.

​Their individual responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Co-developing operational strategy with the senior management and board of directors.
  • ​Drafting all legal documents and paperwork.
  • Perform due diligence in all acquisition and expansion activities.
  • Maintain operational compliance as per all relevant laws and regulations.

Additionally, the general counsel handles all dealings with external legal counsel such as third-party litigation experts. 

  1. General HR and Legal Counsel

This branch of the legal counsel tree leans more towards the human resource aspect of company-wide jurisprudence. 

In an HR capacity, the general counsel is responsible for:

  • Managing the legal requirements of employee recruitment, onboarding, and dismissal.
  • Developing compensation policies along with HR leadership.
  • Providing technical training to HR staff on proper procedures.
  • Investigating ethical violations, conflicts of interest, fraud, etc.

Furthermore, the general counsel ensures that all employee-specific policies are developed as per the state and federal employment law. 

  1. Senior Regulatory Counsel

A large part of the general counsel's job is maintaining regulatory compliance in all aspects of company operations. 

The regulatory counsel role expands this further and focuses on regulatory compliance, including tasks such as:

  • Implementing prevalent regulatory codes and practices.
  • Addressing the compliance requirements of specific regional and overseas territories.
  • Drafting and circulating operational codes throughout the company.
  • Monitoring all operations while keeping a record of any additional expansions.

In addition to this, regulatory counsel ensures that every new regulation is implemented in a timely manner throughout the company. 

  1. General Compliance Counsel

Similar to the regulatory counsel, the general counsel for compliance ensure complete adherence to current employment and operation laws.

Their individual responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Researching current applicable laws on companies and strategize ways to operate within them.
  • Maintaining detailed records of operational procedures, recruitment, etc.
  • Addressing legal concerns of federal and state regulatory bodies.
  • Drafting and negotiating administrative rules, licenses, and nonpossessory rights (easements).

Furthermore, senior compliance officers develop company policies pertaining to proper resource usage and disposal, as per the laws within their territory. 

  1. General Counsel - Senior VP

While the general counsel role is inherently leadership-oriented, some companies enable chief legal officers to hold the position of senior vice president, with a focus on legal policies. 

This means that they will serve as company leadership, while also helping develop business strategy and defining key objectives.

In this capacity, their responsibilities can include, but are not limited to:

  • Overseeing all major and minor acquisitions and strategic developments.
  • Addressing high-level disputes between company leadership on matters related to company direction. 
  • Working with stakeholders to align company vision with legal guidelines.
  • Assist the company in overcoming hurdles related to large-scale change or transition into a new business model.  

Generally speaking, these officers operate in a similar capacity to assistant vice presidents of other departments, only with the company's legal interests being at the forefront of their responsibilities. 

It's important to note that these jobs are most prevalent in the United States. Furthermore, all of these are recognized by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC)

Becoming the Ideal General Counsel Officer

The chief legal officer is a role that's associated with business law. 

Candidates looking to work as general counsel within a company must first take their bar exam and become bona fide legal professionals.

After that, they need at least 5 years of practical experience working in a corporate legal capacity (either as junior legal officers or assistant general counsel).

Once they have accumulated sufficient experience, candidates can apply for seniority within their host company, or apply for the position elsewhere.

Aside from the general qualifications, there are tons of accredited certifications that legal professionals can get, to better qualify for the position. 

These courses can not only broaden the candidate's knowledge base, but they can prepare the individual for more specific job roles than any degree can. 

Final Thoughts

Becoming a member of the legal fraternity is much easier today due to the plethora of online certifications and courses you can take for extra knowledge.

This additional knowledge and expertise can help legal professionals not only get a job in corporate counsel but move up to the CLO position. 

In conclusion, it'll be hugely beneficial for all legal officers to expand their professional horizons and instill as many diverse legal skills as they can for greater career success.

Published in Career Path, Culture, Job Descriptions

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