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What is an In-house General Counsel?

What is general counsel

As businesses grow, so does their risk. To mitigate this risk, the company may choose to add one or more in-house lawyers to their team. The in-house Legal team's purpose has traditionally been to reduce risk, ensure legal compliance and to provide advice on a wide range of legal matters. More recently, the role of in-house legal has evolved to be more aligned to value creation, and supporting the business to apply risk in a way that's competitive.

In-house legal is the fastest growing segment in the legal profession, with the size and influence of legal teams expanding in the modern world.

What is an In-house General Counsel?

The General Counsel is the highest ranked lawyer in an internal company’s Legal Team, and is in charge of overseeing the in-house Legal department, identifying company wide legal issues, and advising the senior executive team.

An in-house General Counsel is the most senior lawyer who is an employee of and works within a corporation. Unlike a lawyer who works at a law firm serving multiple different clients, an in-house General Counsel only does legal work for their direct employer.

The in-house General Counsel's role is in the name, counsel. They are a legal advisor to the business and provide guidance to mitigate legal risk, although the role will vary depending on the type of business, and legal concerns surrounding it. Recently the role has evolved to take on a more business focussed lens, supporting the broader organisation to gain a competitive advantage through application and understanding of risk.

Unlike in private practice, an in-house General Counsel is not measured by the amount of billable hours they work for client matters or number of outputs. Instead, their targets are more in-line with the overall business objectives and KPIs.

What are the skills required of an In-house General Counsel?

An in-house counsel would be expected to have specialised knowledge about the workings of the business and about how legal issues affect commercial decision making.

The tasks of an in-house General Counsel may include:

  • Providing legal advice

  • Creating and leading legal strategy

  • Leading and managing the legal team

  • Reviewing and drafting legal documents

  • Representing the company in court and managing litigation actions

  • Dealing with legal compliance matters

  • Overseeing the delivery of legal services and resources

  • Advising the company executives on a range of issues

  • Overseeing compliance programs

  • Keeping up with changing legislation

What is the difference between General Counsel and in-house counsel?

General Counsel is the title given to the highest ranking lawyer in a business. Sometimes known as the Chief Legal officer, they are typically the head of the Legal department.

An in-house counsel is the more general term for a lawyer working internally to a company, and when used as a title refers to a more junior lawyer within the Legal team. They may specialise in an area of law or provide more general legal support to the company.

Is General Counsel considered a part of the C-suite?

The C-suite is the group of people in a business who hold chief officer level titles, such as the CEO or CFO. A General Counsel can be part of the C-suite, as this role is sometimes used interchangeably with the Chief Legal Officer, but these can also be two separate roles in larger companies.

If it is a separate role, the Chief Legal Officer will be a part of the C-suite, and typically the General Counsel will instead be a Senior Executive. In such instances a General Counsel acts in more of a 'general manager' capacity for particular geographies, business units etc. In this case the Chief Legal Officer would take responsibility for integrating the legal team with the wider organisational goals.

In large organisations there may also be a Group General Counsel who oversees legal strategy on behalf of the group. In this situation the General Counsel would manage the legal teams and decisions for their respective subsidiary only.

General Counsel may also take on the Company Secretary role, which is a position on the board of directors responsible for governing and monitoring the organisation, and making sure it complies with the relevant regulatory requirements.

How do you become an in-house counsel in Australia?

In-house counsel require the same qualifications as private practice lawyers do including:

  • An undergraduate bachelor's degree in Law, or a postgraduate Juris Doctor degree

  • Completion of their Practical Legal Training

  • Admission to the relevant state or territories Admissions Authority

  • A Practising Certificate from the relevant Law Society

In-house lawyers can have a range of experience levels starting from graduate level all the way to more experienced senior legal counsel, and General Counsel.

Although many companies may be looking to hire in-house legal counsel who have previous experience in a law firm, it is possible to start out as a graduate in-house counsel. Most companies will be looking for in-house lawyers with 4-6 years of experience in private practice, as in-house legal teams generally don’t have the capacity to train new lawyers.

Traditional thought is, that if you start at a law firm, you may have a better chance at learning how to practise and seeing a diverse range of legal matters and companies. The experience making you better equipped at giving legal advice later on in your career, whether you continue in private practice, move on to an in-house role, or choose another path entirely. However as the role for an in-house counsel develops and the skill sets diverge, it is becoming more common for in-house counsel to develop their careers without law firm experience.

Can you be a General Counsel to more than one company?

A traditional in-house General Counsel is employed by only one company to provide legal advice and represent them only, although they may do business with other companies. It would be unusual for someone to be a General Counsel for multiple companies if they are working in-house, and may be restricted by an employment contract.

Some companies may choose to outsource their legal work to an independent contractor or law firm. These contractors are known as outside General Counsel.

How can a company outsource their legal work?

Due to budget constraints or short term legal advice required for projects, some companies may choose to adopt an agile talent structure for their Legal team. These companies may choose to insource legal secondees, or outsource their legal work to an independent contractor or law firm, known as outside General Counsel.

In-house Legal Secondees

A legal secondee is a lawyer who temporarily joins the in-house legal team of an organisation to help with a specific project, provide legal expertise or to offer additional capacity without becoming a permanent member of the organisation.

Traditionally those in private practice would become secondee lawyers to gain commercial experience early in their careers, however legal secondments are now available to lawyers during any stage of their career to gain more flexibility and to broaden their skillsets. A secondee may come in to support a General Counsel to assist on a project, give a lift to their day-to-day workload, or backfill a General Counsel on leave.

Plexus Engage provides top-tier legal talent to support the ever-changing needs of in-house legal departments.

Outside General Counsel

An outside General Counsel, also called an outsourced or fractional General Counsel, is an external lawyer who may work part time in-house as a General Counsel to multiple companies at once, typically small businesses and startups.

Unlike a traditional General Counsel, they would not be considered an employee of these multiple companies. This is different to an Outside Counsel, who is an external lawyer you may ask for advice from, as an outside General Counsel would still be expected to become intimately familiar with the company. An outside General Counsel is more akin to hiring a part-time employee than outsourcing to an independent contractor or law firm.

Can General Counsel perform pro-bono legal work?

In many jurisdictions in-house General Counsels are still allowed to perform external pro-bono work with corporate and government practising certificates, and through the National Pro Bono Professional Indemnity Insurance Scheme may be able to receive free professional indemnity insurance. In-house General Counsels can also establish an in-house pro bono program, allowing in-house legal departments to give back to the community and strengthen the organisation’s corporate social responsibility.

To wrap

An in-house General Counsel is the usually the most senior lawyer working in an organisation, who oversees the rest of the legal team. Unlike in private law firms, in-house counsel work directly for their employer, rather than on behalf of multiple clients.

The role of an in-house General Counsel is expanding and becoming increasingly important. As such, the way organisations manage their legal needs and General Counsel has followed suit.

Learn how General Counsel are adopting agile resourcing such as Plexus Engage to fill capacity gaps and build more effective Legal functions. To learn more about General Counsel, here's what Freelance General Counsel Anna Lozynski says executives want from their GCs and Legal teams.

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